Book value still recognised;Educational publishing;Millennium edition

31st December 1999 at 00:00
Reports of the death of textbooks are premature, writes John Davies.

Until the Fifties, it used to be said that two empty plinths in Macmillan's foyer were reserved for Mr Hall and Mr Knight, authors of Hall and Knight's Algebra, which brought the publisher more prosperity than any other book.

After the 1944 Education Act, other textbooks became ubiquitous and achieved huge sales: Durrell's Geometry, Ridout's English books, Kennedy's Latin Primer, Unstead's histories, Whitmarsh's French courses.

Most notorious of all at primary level was the reading scheme starring Janet and John. For most of the century, school books retained an austere format, with utilitarian bindings, lack of colour and inaccessible language: learning was not fun.

The Sixties changed all that. The emphasis on child-centred education in the Plowden and Newsom reports generated a new type of publishing. John Newsom left his post as director of education in Hertfordshire to become a chief adviser to Longman, the leading school publisher of the day. The Schools Council helped to create the climate for publications such as Nuffield Science, Geography for the Young School-Leaver, Breakthrough to Literacy, and the School Maths Project.

At the same time, the appearance of schoolbooks was vigorously upgraded: DonaldMcKean's Introduction to Biology was a seminal work in the quality of its illustrations. As colour television proliferated, so colour was expected in textbooks.

Emphasis was placed on real books that children would enjoy reading, exemplified in new primary reading schemes such as Reading 360 and, more recently, the Oxford Reading Tree.

The national curriculum transformed school publishing. Whole lists had to be revised to cope, while the industry laboured to make it clear that national curricula did not mean national textbooks. The literacy and numeracy strategies have had a similar impact.

Educational publishers are now gearing themselves to deliver electronic materials over the National Grid for Learning.

The death of the book at the hands of a new technology has been frequently predicted. First it was radio, then in the 1930s and 1940s film, in the 1950s television, in the 1960s programmed learning, in the 1970s learning resources, in the 1980s microelectronics, and then the Internet.

But, encouragingly, books are the items most frequently ordered over the Internet.

John Davies is director of the Educational Publishers Council


1935: Penguin pioneers the paperback format, now standard medium for schoolbooks. The British Council is formed, providing a spearhead for British books overseas.

1969: The Educational Publishers Council is established to raise the profile of school publishing.

1988: The Education Reform Act moves decision on book supply to schools and results in much more direct dealing with publishers. The national curriculum demands wide revision of publishers' lists.

1998: New Labour earmarks pound;185 million for school books. This follows pound;45m for books for new GCSEs in the mid-1980s and pound;45m for the national curriculum in the early 1990s.

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