Crisis talk;Textbooks;Interview;Kate Harris

26th February 1999 at 00:00
Schools can't afford enough textbooks; sharing is reaching worrying levels. What is to be done? Give more prominence to book provision, says Kate Harris of the Educational Publishers Council. Diana Hinds meets her, while (right), she talks to full-time teachers who have gone into print

Kate Harris gave up teaching almost two decades ago, but barely a week passes without a trip to one school or another. "My whole life is education, education, education," says the woman who took over the chair of the Educational Publishers Council in 1997, just as Tony Blair was pledging to put schools and children first.

As well as heading the EPC, she is managing director of children's and educational books at HarperCollins. She has three children, all being educated in London state schools, and her husband, John Mannion, is head of English at Elliott School, a GM comprehensive in south London, and himself an author of English textbooks.

Visiting her at the HarperCollins offices in Hammersmith, west London, feels a bit like going to see the headmistress. And she is a little headmistressy, but in the most benevolent way.

Her fascination with education began relatively early. After Quaker boarding school and modern languages at Durham University, she taught English as a foreign language in France, Germany and Kenya, returning from Africa with the aim of joining an English school. But she saw an advertisement for a desk editor's job at Collins Educational. She explains: "I was already interested in the way materials work in the classroom and what can make learning more enjoyable."

So began her 17-year relationship with Collins. She worked on the African and Caribbean list, then became a commissioning editor in humanities, just as the dual system of O-levels and CSEs was giving way to the GCSE.

"It was a time of expansion and new opportunities. There was a lot of creativity and interest in enquiry-based learning," she says.

After the revolution of the GCSE came the upheavals of the national curriculum and, now, the national literacy and numeracy strategies. But Kate Harris believes the lessons of the early GCSE era have not been lost, even in today's infinitely more prescribed curriculum. Chief of these is an emphasis on active learning, which means textbooks full of activities, questions, checkpoints and information.

"A good textbook has to cover the curriculum requirements. But it also has to be attractive and stimulating, accessible and challenging. It must allow for a range of abilities, and it needs to foster active learning."

The national curriculum has led publishers to find many ways of being "creative". Design that helps readers access information has become much more important, as has the quality of support materials.

But the crisis facing textbooks is that schools - secondary schools in particular - cannot afford enough of them. EPC figures show a steady decline in local authority book spending for secondary schools, from pound;23.20 a child in 1994-95 to pound;20.57 in 1996-97 - against pound;56 a child recommended in 1996-97 by the education charity Book Trust.

Kate Harris's appointment as chair of the EPC came hard on the heels of New Labour's election victory and on a tide of optimism that this was the start of a new era for education funding. Her hopes have not been realised.

Although she welcomes the Government's additional funding of pound;67 million for literacy and English - grants of about pound;2,000 a school, plus some funding for the national literacy strategy - secondary schools have not benefited to the same extent as primary schools, and textbook shortages in other subjects have not begun to be addressed. And, there has been no significant commitment to fund resources for the national numeracy strategy, which goes live in September. "That is really frightening," she says.

But she still hopes the Government will find more money. She says persistent lobbying by the EPC was a factor in the additional literacy funding. Already the EPC's dialogue with Labour is more constructive than it ever was with the Conservatives.

But the money must come soon if more pupils' education is not to be seriously jeopardised. Textbook sharing has reached worrying levels. A 1998 survey of secondary pupils by Keele University found that 45 per cent were forced to share, and only 40 per cent of 11-year-olds had their own textbooks for English and science. Photocopied worksheets are not the answer, she argues. They are not cheap, and do not boost a child's motivation and morale in the way that owning a book does.

Schools should ring fence money allocated for books, she advocates, so it is not spent on staff or leaky roofs. Office for Standards in Education reports should also give more prominence to book provision. "With education now a national priority, this is an area that will only increase in importance."


Barbara Ball is assistant principal of Longslade Community College, Birstall, Leicestershire. She is author of 'Task Maths' (Nelson), and series editor of 'Nelson GCSE Maths' (fully published in September) I do all my writing with my husband, who used to train maths teachers at Leicester University. We had a vision of the future when we did Task Maths (for GCSE) in 1986. At that time textbooks would give rules for teaching maths - such as, this is how you solve an equation - without giving a reason. Our idea was that you started with a problem, which gave you a reason for wanting to learn some maths.

The series was received as innovative, but it didn't change the world. The numeracy hour is going back to a "let's teach some standard algorithms" approach. Our latest project (Nelson GCSE Maths) uses conventional chapter headings, such as "Quadratic Equations", but we'd like to think it retains the flavour of our earlier work.

When I'm writing I always think of the best kid in the class I've taught, and the worst kid - it's vital. All teachers develop their own approach, but I feel privileged to see mine beautifully produced in a book. It's nice to think you're having an influence on what's going on in the classroom. We do make some money from it - not enough to retire on, but enough to think it's worth it.

The downside is that you get tired. We have to get up at 6am, and then work in the evenings. The only way we can fit it in is by having no television.


Geoff Barton is deputy head of Thurston Upper School, Bury St Edmund's, Suffolk. His books include 'Grammar Essentials' (Longman), 'Grammar in Context', 'Comprehension to GCSE' (published by Oxford University Press) and 'Top Grade English' (also Oxford this April) Acolleague who wrote science books met a publisher who was looking for an English writer. I sent something off, but it was disastrous - probably because it was pitched too high, one of the classic mistakes.

But I kept on, and in 1987 published a wacky book on grammar. It seems juvenile to me now - blow a raspberry every time you see a full stop, that kind of thing. It was much criticised at the time because of the way it dissected English, and "oversimplified" in some people's view. Now the English curriculum has moved in this direction.

I still write in a systematic way, showing children one skill at a time, because it reassures them. In my comprehension books I ask very structured, detailed questions. It's common sense. I've always had a sympathy with the less able kids, the ones who can't even write a sentence, and you need to be able to reduce English to simple steps.

Writing has made my teaching a lot better - you have to test ideas in the classroom to make them accessible. In the past two years my books have also become an important source of income.

Textbooks could look pretty dated before long, and they will need to be linked with Internet resources. Grammar in Context, has an associated website and an e-mail address.


John Holman is head of Watford Grammar School. He is series editor of Nelson Balanced Science (for GCSE), and author of 'The Material World' in that series In 1975 a colleague at Bristol Grammar asked me to help him write an A-level chemistry textbook, and we produced Chemistry in Context.

It was ground-breaking. Until then, chemistry had been divided into inorganic, organic and physical chemistry, but ours was a single, integrated book. It had a more attractive look than others at the time, and was aimed at the average candidate, rather than the A-grade.

I can't conceive of writing a textbook without teaching. I write as I teach, and that means making a book accessible for a mixed-ability class.

We produced Nelson Balanced Science in the late 1980s, with the new national curriculum in mind. This has focused books much more specifically, but can also be constraining. It's also unfortunate that it tends to exclude the social and technological applications of science - such as the very human story of Marie Curie and her discoveries. All young people study science now, and the human side can make it more interesting to those who are more people-oriented.

Design and quality of printing have been the most striking developments. If you put a 1960s textbook in front of a class today, they would reject it. But the things you can do with a textbook to help children learn still have a long way to evolve - and that's great for the children, and for writers like me.

Modern languages

Sue Brown is special needs co-ordinator at Stoke Damerel Community College, Plymouth. She is author of 'Le Francais, c'est facile' and 'Espanol, ningNon problema' for John Murray, and co-author of 'Route Nationale' for Nelson When I was teaching in the 1980s, even the CSE textbooks didn't work for the lower-ability children. So I was making my own worksheets for them. There was no properly differentiated material.

My department became good at adapting material. For each topic, for example, we would build core words, each with a visual. I started to use this material for INSET courses, particularly in special schools. Then at a conference, someone from John Murray asked me to write a photocopiable pack based on this. The first was Le Francais, c'est facile, followed by Spanish and German versions.

My next project was Route Nationale, again aimed at lower-ability pupils. The national curriculum has been a good thing, in requiring all children to learn a language. Everyone starts from scratch, which can give pupils confidence and self-esteem they didn't have in primary school, and lower-ability children can be very good orally.

The key aspect for lower-ability pupils is providing shorter, easier stages, concentrating on the vital parts and leaving out extraneous stuff. I love writing when it's about something I feel is important. I believe in differentiation very strongly.


Se n Lang is head of history at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge. His books include 'The Twentieth Century World' for KS3 (Cambridge University Press), 'Parliamentary Reform 1785 - 1928' (Routledge) and 'Modern World History' (Macmillan) My first history book was an A-level computer pack with support materials in the early days of the BBC Micro. It sank without trace. I then became an education lecturer under Ted Wragg at Exeter, and was asked to write some chapters of a GCSE revision book. Things went on from there.

My style tends to be on the chatty side at KS3 and GCSE - although at A-level it's difficult to avoid getting a bit pompous.

There was a terrible time when the national curriculum kept changing so publishers kept changing my commissions. But the curriculum has standardised things. There's a sameness about what's published, and less serendipity than before. Publishers won't take risks.

My latest book, The Twentieth Century World, is for KS3, after which many children give up history. I saw it as a duty to cover the 20th century, not just the two world wars. It was a battle to widen the content like this - but textbooks have a duty to enrich children.

Writing them is tremendously good for you. It refreshes your knowledge and keeps your interest alive, so your teaching is a lot better for it. But it's a struggle to fit it in when you're teaching full-time, and I'm not one of those people who can stay up all night writing.

10 Textbooks Kate Harris: the national curriculum has led publishers to find many ways of being 'creative'

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