Books are no longer for browsing
There was a time when the publishers' exhibition at the annual conference of the National Association for the Teaching of English was an opportunity to browse among books, much as one might do in a library of the most up-to-date publications. That feeling had all but disappeared this year at the University of Surrey.
With the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority taking up its stall at the entrance, and the Copyright Licensing and Basic Skills Agencies in the background, and all the examination boards situated between the agencies and the publishers, one could not help feeling that English teachers were being offered little scope beyond the diktats of key stages 3 and 4 in the national curriculum, GCSE and A level. The chain of command was laid bare, visible in the room.
When examination boards are able to offer free anthologies of out-of-copyright material to cash-starved English departments, publishers have to work harder than ever to compete. While the kinds of books which would be attractive to lower secondary boys who don't much like reading were under-represented, nobody needs to worry now that there is a lack of resources for the teaching of Shakespeare and pre-20th-century classics.
Glossy and imaginative new editions abound. I was very impressed by the photocopiable hard-folder editions of Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Julius Caesar produced by Questions Publishing Company and edited by Barrie Wade, Maggie Oates and John Sheppard. The complete texts are beautifully presented, supported by intelligent commentary and are reader-friendly for 11 to 14-year-olds.
This year sees the publication of several sets of course books, each series aiming to give complete coverage of everything in the English Orders at KS3 and 4. Hodder English is an example. Books 1, 2 and 3, to be published very soon, are each organised as a series of six units intended to cover half a term's work. The authors, Sue Hackman, Alan Howe and Patrick Scott, are all well known in NATE and they have been careful to be very inclusive in their units.
It's all there - media studies, drama, speaking and listening, standard English and a good range of fiction and poetry from the past and present and from non-British cultures. The authors wisely omit assessment grids, leaving English teachers some work to do. The extracts of literature will need to be supported by good stocks of complete works so that teachers can promote in-depth reading.
Longman also has an all-coverage English course - English Solutions. This series of five books is even more earnestly matched against the requirements of the national curriculum and each of the examination boards. As with the Hodder course, the authors are experienced English teachers.
Also coming soon from NATE itself is Elspeth and Richard Bain's The Grammar Book, a comprehensive and ambitious photocopiable folder of sensible language activities very much influenced by the language in the national curriculum project. None of these is cheap, and the value they offer teachers will have to be set against the need to extend stocks of interesting and exciting fiction and poetry.
NATE is still perceived by publishers as an organisation for secondary teachers of English, a view reflected in the lack of primary books and materials at the exhibition. I also spoke to several representatives about the lack of literature from non-British cultures at key stage 3. They complained that teachers will not buy the books, yet this is one of the stipulations of the national curriculum. SCAA representatives thought that this would begin to change very soon.
I certainly hope so, because some of the most interesting new fiction I saw was multicultural; especially in Heinemann's long-standing and excellent New Windmill series. Ian Strachan's Throwaways and Peter Dickinson's Merlin Dreams were especially recommended for reluctant 12- and 13-year-old boy readers, while I particularly liked the same publisher's adaptations of classic multicultural texts - Bessie Head's When Rain Clouds Gather and Ngugi Wa Thiong'O's Weep Not, Child, both in the Guided Readers series. It is a pity that the examination boards, whose selection of texts from non-British cultures is very conservative and rather out-of-date in most cases, does not make use of some of these excellent works.
The Basic Skills Agency had brought along books which were aimed at the English class rather than the special needs departments of secondary schools. Their Real Lives series is proving popular and I was very interested in some new titles on Indian film stars - Shah Rukh Khan and Sridevi among them, both written by Julia Holt and Shubhra Phalke.
For drama and media studies, two books in particular are worth watching out for - Routledge's The Media Studies Book and NATE's The Patchwork Quilt, both to be published shortly.
Carol Fox is senior lecturer in primary education at the University of Brighton