Chapter and source

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Sue Palmer says that teachers who reach for a textbook should not be accused of copping out because they are using these valuable tools. Long ago, I met a primary headteacher who claimed that, in the event of a nuclear war, he was going to build himself a fall-out shelter from copies of Angus MacIver's First Aid in English. He said: "My family'll be safe in there because, whatever happens, that wretched book will be the last thing on God's earth to perish. "

There are probably still a few of MacIver's dapper little blue textbooks around, but I doubt if there'd be enough to build a decent-sized family bunker. Certainly no textbook of recent years has been widespread enough to merit such confidence. Reckless spending on books - particularly textbooks - ceased to be a feature of the British educational scene many years ago, as each annual report from the Educational Publishers' Council reminds us, and the lack of sales is not entirely due to financial considerations.

The move away from the use of prescribed (and pre-scribed) texts in the primary school began after the Plowden Report in the late Sixties. Perhaps remembering long hours with the likes of MacIver during their own school days, teacher-trainers and primary advisers consistently argued that teachers should provide their own materials, appropriate to the particular needs of their classes, and individuals within their classes. As this coincided with a decline in whole-class teaching, many headteachers fell into the habit of buying only individual copies of books for teachers to use as a resource, or at most sets of five or so for use with small groups of children. Since the advent of photocopiers in schools in the early Eighties, teachers increasingly mix and match pages and worksheets from a variety of resources to support their teaching of particular subject areas.

In fact, distaste for textbooks has become as much a part of British primary school culture as a topic-based teaching and mixed-ability grouping, and perhaps while we're being urged to examine our attachment to these other shibboleths, we should have a quick reassessment of the place of the textbook too. As one who has, despite the slowness of the market and the opprobrium of many colleagues, been writing the things for the past 10 years, I reckon there are a number of points in their favour.

The main reason I started writing textbooks (apart from the fact that I was exiled from the classroom while my baby daughter grew up) was that I'd always appreciated them myself. In areas where I felt pretty secure of my own knowledge - like English or history - I could mix, match and even write my own materials with the best of them, and in these subjects I built up a collection of single copies of books as a personal resource. But in areas where I felt shaky, I was only too grateful to rely on some expert to structure my lessons and hold my hand through the process of teaching.

Over the years I used TV and radio programmes (especially those with accompanying pupils' pamphlets we could all share), workcards and workbooks, and - when I could get my hands on them in an anti-textbook culture - class sets of books. I sometimes felt guilty when advisers suggested I should be knitting my own curriculum, but I simply didn't have the time or scholarship to work out a good structured course in every subject under the sun. Indeed, with hindsight I can't imagine how any teacher managed to do it. It was alright for advisers to advise - each of them was only responsible for one corner of the curriculum - but trying to follow that advice was probably a recipe for an early nervous breakdown.

With a junior class, I discovered another great advantage in a set of textbooks (especially in subjects like history, geography or science). They could be used to teach reading skills. They provided a shared text for children to follow as one of the class read it aloud, and then to discuss - focusing on vocabulary, the way the writing was organised, the ideas and concepts expressed and other odds and ends, such as how much bias the author displayed. The shared reading provided everyone with a shared bank of knowledge, on which children could base individual, paired or group follow-up work, with the now familiar text always available for reference.

Modern textbooks have moved a long way from First Aid in English. They tend to be attractive, colourful, with useful illustrations, maps, charts, and so on. Content is usually well-researched and follow-up activities are likely to be interactive, differentiated, and in line with modern teaching methods. On a practical note, textbooks are less likely to get immediately dog-eared, lost or torn in the way of photocopied sheets, and as a set lasts many years, it may well prove more economical in the long run than reams of photocopies.

But in recent years I've come across another reason for looking again at the place of textbooks in the primary classroom - and that's the way the wind is blowing from the office of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools. Although Chris Woodhead has attacked most other manifestations of a child-centred primary culture, I haven't noticed him suggesting that we should bring back the textbook. He has often pointed out that teachers lack subject expertise - but his solution is to import subject specialists into the primary classroom.

This might indeed be a good idea in large schools, but nobody has ever explained to me how small country-school and one-form-entry primaries are to implement it.

Earlier this year, a one-teacher school in a remote area of Cornwall was closed down. The reason given to the public by the county council was not the usual economic one, but the fear that a single teacher could not cover the full range of the curriculum. "What do you mean?" I cried at the radio. "She's a teacher, isn't she?" Teachers have been covering the full range of the primary curriculum since schools began. How come they suddenly can't anymore?" Call me a hard-bitten old cynic, but I begin to wonder if there may be a hidden agenda in this specialist teacher solution.

Anyway, primary teachers are already specialists: their professionalism has rested, since long before Plowden, on two particular areas of expertise. They are specialists in children - generally, in terms of child development and learning theory, and in particular, in terms of each individual in every class they teach. And they are specialists in teaching: taking on the one hand the knowledge, skills and concepts associated with a particular subject and, on the other, the children in their care, and bringing the two gently and effectively together. This is not easy and for several decades the skills involved have been consistently overlooked and under-valued, not least by the profession itself.

In the past, when teaching was recognised as an art, it was accepted practice for teachers to use books to fill in the gaps in their knowledge - nowadays, after 25 years of emphasis on either the learner or the subject-matter, people seem to think using books is a cop out.

But as we're being urged to review every aspect of our theory and practice, here's a swift reprise of the alternative view: sets of textbooks can be a cheap and simple way of providing subject expertise and structure on those occasions when teachers don't feel confident enough to provide it themselves. They are but instruments, of course, but they are not intended to be used alone: a teacher should be mediating between them and the class. And if the teacher is worthy of the name, he or she will be doing something which can turn blunt instruments into bows of burning gold: teaching.

* Sue Palmer is general editor of theLongman Book Project

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