The most humble learning resource of all is being dangerously neglected, says Graham Taylor.
The November report that headteachers have cut spending on books, in an effort to attract and retain teachers in the face of staff shortages, may have surprised few people in education. School budgets have never been stretched in so many directions, despite extra funding. But while books'
relegation to the bottom of the procurement pile may surprise no one, this should not become the accepted, unchallenged norm.
Evidence in favour of the beneficial effect of textbooks in the classroom remains as strong as ever. Recent research into book-buying in secondary schools, by Keele University, shows that nearly three-quarters of headteachers believe that there is a significant link between academic attainment and access to textbooks. Eighty-eight per cent of pupils questioned believe that having a textbook of their own in lessons helps them to understand their work.
The report also revealed that pupils benefit from supply teachers, classroom assistants and their parents having access to a course book to help them.
The problem is that, while teachers, pupils and parents recognise the role of books in supporting learning, there is a clear discrepancy between the educational value placed on books and the priority they are given in budget planning.
Keele's report reveals that few schools have a specific policy on the provision of learning resources, despite Booktrust releasing their recommended spending on books in schools report last year. Unfortunately, Keele's research shows that these recommendations are not getting through to the vast majority of budgetary decision makers - heads of department.
Consequently, book-buying is often the last expense to be considered. The results of this are plain to see. The Educational Publishers Council's annual Schoolbook Spending Survey shows that UK spending is well below recommended levels in all the core subject areas. In secondary maths, for example, spending is running at one third of the recommended figure.
'There is a discrepancy between the value placed on books and the priority they are given in budget planning'
Foundation subjects are also suffering - spending in modern foreign languages and history is under a third of the benchmark. The daily reality of this is that out-of-date editions are too often used, or books are done without altogether. Other Keele research (The use and availability of text or course books in Schools) shows that as many as 44 per cent of secondary pupils have to share books in class, with perhaps 65 per cent unable to take books home with them.
How can we solve this? First, subject leaders need to be able to make informed budgeting decisions based on realistic and up-to-date guidelines.
To help with this, EPC has produced a new Book Check Assessor (available at www.books-raise-standards.co.uk), updated this month to take recent figures into account. It is a useful tool, but government targets for provision (equivalent to the new public library standards) are needed to end the trend that has led, among other things, to spending on books at primary level reaching a five-year low in 2002.
Second, schools need to check and boost their book provision, and to establish a policy for all learning resources, not just ICT. The arrival of Curriculum Online, and ring-fenced money in the form of e-learning credits, may allow funds previously destined for ICT to be freed up. Even in schools at an advanced level of ICT-supported learning, it is unlikely that pupils have the benefit for more than 15 per cent of curriculum time - the norm will be nearer 5 per cent. We must support the rest of their time in the classroom as well. Of funds spent on learning resources across UK schools, more than 20 per cent is already going into electronic materials - and new money is arriving.
It is time to ensure that other vital learning tools, such as the humble book, are not short changed - as well as the pupils who need and value them. Books can raise standards too.
Graham Taylor is Director of the Educational Publishers' Council, the schools division of the Publishers Association Governors, 30