Choose books or computers

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Do we need books? Only a few years ago, asking the question would have been regarded as absurd. Not any more. In the age of Bill Gates, when the growth of electronic publishing has brought the biggest revolution in communications for half a millennium, it is no longer fanciful to suggest that the days of the printed word are numbered. The age of Gutenberg and Caxton, surely, will soon be over?

But just a moment. Only a few years ago, with the arrival of computerisation, there were confident predictions that workplaces up and down the land would become "paperless environments". If anything, the opposite has proved true. The more information we are able to access, it seems, the more we feel the need to print it out. Perhaps it's just a phase we are going through and soon a nation of technophobes will be replaced by a generation at ease with reading Little Dorritt or A Brief History of Time on screen.

But until then, books will continue to be part of the warp and weft of our culture. Reading - both for pleasure and for learning - has never been more important. And that is why the results of the latest survey by the Educational Publishers' Council (page 14) are so worrying.

One in five primary schools, it seems, can afford to spend less than Pounds 5 per pupil on books and other printed resources annually - at a time when a single textbook costs Pounds 9. Two in three of the headteachers surveyed believe they do not have enough money to spend on the printed word. The situation is scarcely less serious for the fact that it is not new. For those who control school purse strings, the choice for some years has been simple: cut resources or cut back on teachers.

As a result, it is commonplace for parents to be asked to pay for textbooks, and many schools are permanently in thrall to a culture of proliferating photocopies and worksheets. This creates extra work for teachers, and sends inappropriate messages to pupils about the status of books in school.

Now we have a new Government which, rightly, has put education - particularly literacy - at the top of its agenda. And it has set an ambitious timetable with targets to improve standards. But where will the money come from?

The Government, in part, has already answered this. An extra Pounds 1 billion has been made available for its ambitious "raising achievement" programme. The Education Secretary David Blunkett wants this to be spent on books and equipment. But others warn that some, perhaps most, of the extra cash will be swallowed up on funding the next teachers' pay award - unless more money is found. Hard choices, as ministers are fond of saying, need to be made if this pot of gold is to bring desperately needed resources to the classroom.

We are talking priorities here. Which is it to be - books or computers? The answer, over time, must be both. But in the short term, schools could be facing some painful decisions. Government plans to create a National Grid for Learning by linking all schools, colleges, museums and libraries to the Internet will not come cheap. At the same time, the introduction of a daily literacy hour in primary schools and ministerial exhortations to set more homework increase the need for more books.

At the very least it should be a national priority to ensure that every child who is given homework can take home the appropriate textbooks and reading books to help them - and their parents - to make the best of their learning. If that means making specific grants available - be it taxpayers' money or a lottery windfall - so be it. More books are needed - and needed now.

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