Do it by the book

14th July 2006 at 01:00
Primary teachers need good textbooks, writes Robert Vanderplank

Some questions for primary school teachers. Have you ever been asked by parents about maths textbooks? What did you answer? "Maths textbooks are old-fashioned, don't provide for differentiation or fit in with the national numeracy strategy. We don't like them, especially when children can see which exercises are coming next - and do them ahead of the class."

To try and find out why I kept getting these answers, I attended a presentation on the national numeracy strategy at my daughter's school.

Little did I know that the framework for maths teaching was so over-arching that teachers are guided in teaching in maths for every day of the school year. Most parents would be astonished if they knew the amounts that the Government has thrown at Capita, the huge out-sourcing company, to produce better maths resources, and the time it takes teachers to make use of these.

But there is only so much that even the best teacher can do within the present framework. A good maths textbook provides teachers, pupils and parents with a common resource, a clear picture of where a class is in relation to a term's or a whole year's syllabus as well as shared knowledge and expectations.

At present, pupils are told what they are doing in maths on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis and parents glean what they can from a very broad outline of the curriculum sent home at the start of the year or term, from occasional photocopied worksheets and from their own child's feedback. Many parents find this unsatisfactory and regard the worksheets and workbooks as scrappy and incoherent. Above all, the present approach to maths is disempowering for both pupils and parents, a paradoxical situation for a government which claims to put parental choice and involvement at the heart of its policies.

I have encountered enormous resistance to my views, especially when I talk about the excellent maths textbooks produced in other countries. A report by Tony Harries, Rosamund Sutherland and Geoffrey Howson, commissioned by the QCA (ref. QCA98250) in 1998 but now buried, found that in many of the countries studied, textbooks play an important role in the delivery of the maths curriculum. The authors of the report recommend that the vital role of textbooks in primary maths should be recognised in England.

In another country which I know well, Finland, well-produced maths textbooks lie at the heart of the system and are a joy both to look at and to use. They provide parents with the full picture, give the teacher excellent materials and activities at a variety of levels and equip pupils with a wide range of exercises.

Can the Government succeed in its maths targets unless pupils are provided with examples, materials and activities that they can take away, which form a coherent whole - in other words a textbook?

It is more than a matter of schools spending a bit more on maths textbooks.

Maths textbooks comparable with the Finnish ones are impossible to find in England. Our headteacher doesn't seem to think there are any such textbooks; at least, she couldn't recommend any. Are maths textbook writers now employed by Capita? Capita's website tells us that it employs educationists among the 300 working on the strategies, so some of them may be there. Or are they still busy writing good maths textbooks for East and West Africa?

Dr Robert Vanderplank is a parent-governor at a primary school in Buckinghamshire and teaches applied linguistics in the Department of Educational Studies, Oxford University

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