Caught between exams and the market place

27th February 1998 at 00:00
There should be more to writing textbooks than just the blinkered grinding througha syllabus, argues Geoff Barton

A few years ago, a government committee compiled an anthology for the key stage 3 English tests. It was a ham-fisted filleting of classic works, plus the odd snippet from another culture. The editors understandably chose to remain anonymous.

They might well have included Mystic Meg because that much-derided publication foretold a time when the worlds of the curriculum and publishing would al-most converge to the point where people creating the curriculum would also write the textbooks.

In light of recent curriculum and assessment changes, published resources have moved on dramatically. The content of many competing textbooks is now indistinguishable. As Brenda Stones, publishing director at Oxford University Press, says: "Content is now totally prescribed by curriculum or syllabuses and, therefore, books have to compete on other fronts."

Timing is crucial - the book that is released first can scoop the market, even if it's not the best. Promotion also plays a vital role - the publisher who chases the customer hardest is likely to win the order. Discounts and pricing mean that often the best bargain rather than the quality of the product is what counts.

Teachers no longer pick up a textbook hoping for entirely new ideas. In fact, that would prove distracting. Instead, they look for the way their specific classroom needs are met, checking that the content of the curriculum is covered as dutifully as possible.

According to Brenda Stones, assessment is winning in teachers' priorities. "SATs (national tests) practice at key stages 1, 2 and 3 used to be a market solely for anxious parents. Now it's a priority for teachers, tooI league tables and national testing have increased the market for revision notes and study aids."

Put another way, published resources appear to have become safer. Joan Ward, senior publisher at Longman schools division, detects a shift from a national curriculum which gave equal emphasis to a range of subjects to one which highlights assessment and the basics. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has narrowed the focus more with its emphasis on literacy and numeracy. "This is obviously reflected in publishing opportunities," she says. "The spirit of adventure is now much more hazy."

The latest development has been to affiliate textbooks closely with specific examination boards and syllabuses. The "book of the course" becomes a natural and potentially lucrative goal. The Northern Examinations and Assessment Board's GCSE English exam has about 250,000 candidates. That's just one board, and a huge potential market for books.

It also means that exam boards wield an increasingly powerful influence over what is published. While teachers may gain a certain initial reassurance from this - because a book appears to be the "official" textbook for the syllabus - there are drawbacks. Be it a fresh novel, a great play by Ibsen or even a quirky new textbook, if it isn't quickly endorsed by the exam boards then it won't be bought by schools and will go out of print. This isn't just a matter of lost sales but also of lost educational opportunities.

Amid a national rallying cry for literacy, new and classic texts alike are being discarded because they haven't found favour with a syllabus. The reading curriculum, especially at key stage 4, appears to be shrinking to a few well-trodden titles. The fundamental goal of many teachers and of the national curriculum itself - to promote reading for pleasure beyond mainstream texts - seems increasingly precarious.

And that is where good textbooks ought to play a part. They help to introduce new authors and to try out new approaches. Like old friends, they reassure, guide and entertain us, providing creativity and clarity.

Every teacher knows a text that can be relied on even in the face of grim adversity. Poor weather, turbulent end-of-term days, classes of unstable characters: teachers learn which book to turn to.

But some of the best books look out of place against a utilitarian backdrop. A creative new title is unlikely to be published if it lacks syllabus approval. And it takes a brave publisher to go ahead without such market guarantees.

So while it is generally good that the new crop of published resources is focused on curriculum needs, let's hope a small flame of ingenuity and eccentricity stays alight to show that there is more to teaching than grinding through a syllabus.

Good teachers know that you can teach the same content in a variety of styles. Good textbooks do the same, while reminding us also that creativity itself hasn't been banished from classrooms.

* Geoff Barton is deputy head of Thurston Upper School, Suffolk, and an author and editor of English textbooks

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