Hold on to the carousel

24th February 1995 at 00:00
John Davies says that in a time of change the textbook can be an agent of stability. The publishing roundabout is likely to be one of the main attractions among all the fun of the fair at the Education Show.

This analogy of the roundabout would seem to suit publishers' views of the national curriculum. No sooner have they prepared teaching materials for its delivery than the carousel takes off again, full circle, and changes the whole scene. And, like the hobby horses, educational publishers' sales have gone up and down...

Lately, and unfortunately, they have been down. Schools have understandably been unprepared to buy books and teaching materials while the whole concept of the curriculum was under long review. During the period from the announcement of the review to the production of the proposals, book purchases by schools plunged by Pounds 1.1 million in cash, Pounds 5.8 million in real terms.

It was hoped that schools might now be in a position to turn their attention to the books that they will require to implement the new curriculum, but early messages on their financial situation are bleak. A headteacher of a school in Oxfordshire predicts that: "Cuts of this size will mean, among other things, fewer books."

The Government has nominated books and teaching materials as items that might be purchased under the 1995-96 earmarked grant for school effectiveness and the basic curriculum. What is not clear at this moment is how much funding is available and how much of it schools will be able to spend on books.

In terms of the preparation of their publications, educational publishers have of late been not so much on the roundabout as on the helter-skelter. They have had to produce within months new material for the curriculum which would normally be carefully developed over a period of years. They have had to find further investment in the most unpromising of circumstances. The whole terminology of the curriculum has been changed. While some subjects, such as mathematics, have been largely unscathed, others, such as history, geography and science, have faced radical revision of content.

The officers of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority have been extremely co-operative in trying to ensure that publishers receive the earliest information on changes, but the timescale has been an awesome one. It has been a situation where the best laid schemes of educational publishers have gone "aft a-gley".

The Education Show in March will thus be one of the first occasions when teachers and educationists will be able to view the materials that publishers have produced for the new school year. The show will be supplemented by a series of further regional and subject exhibitions scheduled throughout 1995 by the Educational Publishers Council, the British Educational Suppliers Association and other organisations. The show was preceded this month by two exhibitions in Scotland, where similarly far-reaching changes to the curriculum are taking place.

The Education Show will offer on display both course books and library books. The importance of the provision of library books both in schools and via school library services has been correctly emphasised recently, both in the general context of the national curriculum and in a special study for the Department of National Heritage.

Occasionally, certain educationists warn against the "slavish" use of textbooks. If textbooks are used slavishly, their comments are probably justified, but today's textbooks are usually initiated by the best of teachers and represent the best of teaching.

Publishers have to sell books and balance their accounts to survive, but they bring to their textbooks high professional skills in editorial and design work and presentation. Worksheets produced by teachers can be of a very high standard, though many are tatty, derivative and ineffective. In recent discussion over photocopying, there has been general agreement among inspectors, local authorities and rights owners, that there is too much substandard material of this type in our schools. New technology has brought more than a million personal computers into our schools, but these remain inadequate both in number and range and quality of software to cater for seven million schoolchildren.

Books remain the prime aid to teaching and learning and a central part of the resources of any school. British expertise in educational publishing has a high reputation overseas: Pounds 118 million in English language teaching books are exported each year.

One of the most perceptive studies of the value of textbooks, by Tom Hutchinson and Eunice Torres of Lancaster University, may be found in the ELT Journal of October 1994. The authors freely admit that there are good textbooks and bad textbooks, but their careful conclusion is as follows: "What the textbook does is to create a degree of order within potential chaos. It is a visible and workable framework around which many forces and demands of the teaching-learning process can cohere to provide the basis of security and accountability that is necessary for purposeful action in the classroom.

"The vital management role takes on even greater importance in the insecure context of change. Rather than denigrating and trying to do away with textbooks, we should recognise their importance in making the lives of teachers and learners easier, more secure and fruitful, and seek a fuller understanding of their use in order to exploit their full potential as agents of smooth and effective change".

One of the benefits of the Education Show will be the opportunity it provides to visitors to lay their hands on these agents of smooth and effective change.

John Davies is director of the Educational Publishers Council of the Publishers Association.

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