I had just returned from a high-powered seminar. Some of the most experienced teachers from some of the most success-ful schools in the country rubbed shoulders with the heads of the modern language sections of virtually all the big educational publishers. There was a host of advisers, consultants and writers on language teaching.
The day was designed to disseminate feedback from a survey on textbooks for language teaching, and it went on in a rather po-faced manner. The only real laugh came when the adviser, after revealing the astonishing fact that 75 per cent of teachers declared themselves "completely satisfied" with their language course books, came to the section where teachers had been asked to add further comments. Several had expressed a preference for a book in which "each page follows the other".
A moment of stunned silence was followed by a request that this concept be explained. Well, came the reply, this would be a course in which the book maintained a logical progression, with no need to jump about, refer to other sources, do Exercise B before Exercise A, search through several tapes and resource files, and so on.
This explanation caused much hilarity. What an extraordinary notion! Everybody knows courses should consist of teacher's book, textbook, work book, copymasters, resource files, flashcards, cassettes and, oh, as many other items as possible.
The idea of a single book in which "each page follows the other" is enormously attractive. But I decided this would not be a good moment to confess that I consistently teach my Years 10 and 11 with a 10-year-old book that does indeed go from page to page, that the results have always been excellent (for able and less able students) and that no student has ever complained of confusion or even boredom.
I got home to a message from a colleague on the answerphone. A friend had written a GCSE Arabic course and wondered if I could reccommend a publisher. I found myself telling her that publishing it herself was probably the best option. And, as fate would have it, the next day's Sunday paper contained an article describing how new technology allows just about anyone to produce tiny runs of books at no greater cost than print-runs of thousands.
I thought about my school. The French department doesn't use textbooks, preferring home-made materials. Far from being a hindrance, this policy has led to outstanding reports from the Office for Standards in Education and glowing coverage in the current issue of the Linguist magazine.
The materials can be a bit scruffy, but my weekend's experience led me to realise that creating a tailor-made course book is well within the bounds of possibility for any school. Now wouldn't that be worth doing?
Gary Shawford teaches modern languages in Worcester. If you have a strong opinion on a curriculum issue, write to Brendan O'Malley, secondary curriculum editor, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY