Make sure you always keep to the text

24th January 1997 at 00:00
What has happened to the publishing innovation of the post-Plowden era? asks Gerald Haigh.

When I became a primary head, I was genuinely shaken to find that the teachers were using graded English textbooks. I hurriedly collected them and put them in a very dark and remote storeroom.

In other subjects, there was a drive from colleges and inspectors for first-hand experience, to counteract the kind of classroom once described to me by Leonard Marsh, former principal of Bishop Grosseteste College. He had visited a school in London's docklands. "The lights were on because a ship was blocking out the sun, and the children were studying Southampton Docks from a textbook."

Established authors of textbooks saw their royalties dip in those post-Plowden years. Headteacher Paul Noble, a writer of primary history books, recalls that "people would devise their own schemes rather than use something published. There was no sense of standing on the shoulders of the mighty, no idea that somebody had spent years preparing the material so there might be something useful in it."

Publishers responded by devising less formal-looking schemes. Reading laboratories arrived (boxes of graded comprehension cards). They looked more progressive, and yet to many teachers they were just English coursebooks cut into pieces. There was the lively and successful "Reading 360" from Australia, imported and adapted by the publishers Ginn. It won over many teachers, although some of us thought that to produce an interesting reading scheme was a bit below the belt.

Addison Wesley's Mathematics for Schools, grown from classroom work in Staffordshire and known as "Fletcher Maths" after the main author, was another Seventies bestseller. The key to the scheme was the teachers' book, which set out an approach based on the supremacy of understanding over mechanical process. Fletcher maths was innovative: it changed way the subject was taught.

The Schools Council produced Breakthrough to Literacy and Science 5-13, which was, says Professor Wynne Harlen, now director of the Scottish Council for Research in Education, based on the philosophy that "children had ideas and skills and should be doing their own thinking. It was Plowden straight down the line." It was taken up by almost a third of all primary schools and set out a vocabulary for primary science which has endured.

Publishers say the days of curriculum innovation through their work have gone. Martin Cuss of Oxford University Press offered the obvious explanation: "The national curriculum has killed innovation. " Ann Foster, who has worked for several publishers, sees a trend towards publications closely tailored to the market. "There's much more teamworking," she says. "Editors work with the author and the designer on shaping material. Often the publisher will identify the market need and then seek out the authors. It's a very tight-knit thing. "

The irony, suggested Martin Cuss, is that it was the post-Plowden, pre-national curriculum ferment of development and experiment that created a true market economy for publishers. "If the materials didn't work, they died."

Ms Foster, however, believes, there is still plenty of room for creative ideas in areas, such as differentiation, that concern teachers. "The national curriculum just gives a level playing field. The successful publishers are listening to schools more than before. They have to be pretty imaginative and very market-focused." There is evidence, too, that it is possible to strain too hard to tie materials to the detail of the national curriculum. Some publishers were caught out in the early Nineties when they rushed out books closely linked to subject documents that quickly changed.

On the horizon, though, is something that many people see as sinister. David Blunkett has raised the issue of state textbooks.

"There's a great concern that we will move to a state textbook and a state exam," says a publisher. "What it will mean is that you'll get worse textbooks." Conversely, there is the strong possibility that the explosion of communications technology will make knowledge so accessible that course textbooks will become irrelevant anyway.

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