The School Book Alliance, a coalition group of teachers, parents and educationists, is asking whether British schools spend enough on books, writes John Howson.
Its UK figure apparently reflects book expenditure at just over an eighth of the Norwegian level. However, the figures the SBA published in its recent survey came from several different national sources, and relate to different years. The UK figure is for spending in 1996-97, whereas the Norway figure is for 1998.
Is it fair for the SBA to use UK figures from an earlier government to demand extra money today? As the Chancellor decided to stick to the spending plans of the previous government for the first two years of this parliament, there may be some justification for this approach.
However, this is not the only issue. Most of the figures, apart from those for The Netherlands, appear to come from publishers' sources; undoubtedly an interested party in any campaign to increase book expenditure. There is also the question of exchange rates and the need to take into account the comparative purchasing powers of different currencies. The SBA would have been wise to make comparisons of book costs as well as expenditure.
Aside from the survey, the SBA raise some significant issues at a time when spending patterns in England and Wales are affected by the devolution of funding power to schools and literacy is a hot topic.
In theory, schools could decide to spend more on books, and less on computers, where Britain seems to be nearer the top of the league. Schools could also decide to spend less on teachers and more on books. Book spending may have been one of the casualties of the squeeze on school funds that started in the early 1990s - it is, after all, easier to defer new spending than to cut staff.
The Government's decision this spring to award pound;2,000 per school to spend on books has no doubt been helpful, particularly to primary schools, but it represents a drop in the ocean for secondaries. Few will have benefited by more than pound;2.50 per pupil, and for the largest schools it has meant a mere pound;1 per pupil. This is not enough to buy a first year textbook, let alone an A-level set text. As the SBA points out, with further changes to the national curriculum in the offing, schools may need many new books over the next few years; few will have the books to teach citizenship. Some method has to be found to ensure that schools have the money to buy the books, and that they are able to spend it for that purpose. With ever more material on the Internet and more children on-line,getting the balance right between money for books and spending on ICT could be more difficult than making reliable international comparisons.
John Howson is a fellow of Oxford Brookes University and runs an educational research company. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org