Tales of 1,001 unbought books

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
Paul Fisher reports the results of the Educational Publishers' Council survey of textbooks in schools

Nearly one in five primary schools cannot afford to buy a single book for many children in a whole year, according to a survey carried out by the Educational Publishers' Council.

A sizeable minority of secondary schools are equally penny-pinching and the survey's authors, Trevor Osbourn and Roger Watson, comment: "It seems extraordinary, the price of books being what it is, that 14 per cent of secondary LEA schools should admit to spending less than Pounds 10 per head on printed resources" The welter of statistics gathered from a cross-section of 2,300 British schools is certain to fuel the more-money-for-school-books campaign because they not only show how little is being spent by some schools but highlight the disparity between the haves and have-nots. Differences in book expenditure between various types of school are in the table below.

On average, private or grant-maintained primary school have book budgets more than twice as large as local education authority schools' and they spend over 80 per cent more per pupil. The differences at secondary level are 36.7 per cent in total and 64 per cent per head. To fend off criticisms that these conclusions rely on the responses from only 7 per cent of the country's schools, Osbourn and Watson offer a reminder and a dry mathematician's joke. "Statistically these differences are very significant," they say. "We can be 99 per cent confident they are too large to be the result of sampling differences. "

As well as being a barometer of wealth, book expenditure is a measure of importance given to particular subjects and of teachers' confidence in coping with curriculum changes. Book choices reveal schools to be small "c" conservatives. For example, the 10-subject compulsory curriculum has had little impact on traditional primary school spending patterns with a consistent bias toward English and mathematics books. However, in 1993 - the last time this survey was carried out - three-quarters of teachers thought curriculum changes would demand more money for books. Now only a quarter think this is so.

Curriculum changes are not to blame for any shortage of funds for the purchase of books. The problem now is purely financial and while more is arguably needed, less is being spent. The Educational Publishers' Council survey follows hard on the heels of a meeting organised by its controlling body, the Publishers' Association, at which teachers' representatives learned that book expenditure in schools fell by Pounds 8.5 million in real terms last year, which is a 4 per cent drop in a Pounds 215m market. The meeting was also given a simple book- spending figure of Pounds 23 per pupil per year, which was arrived at by dividing the value of book sales to schools by the number of pupils. By this measure Britain is a Euro-laggard way behind Finland (Pounds 71 per child), Austria and Sweden (Pounds 61), Holland (Pounds 56) and Denmark (Pounds 33).

John Davies, director of the Educational Publishers' Council, says "uncertainty over the curriculum and, lately, the tough local authority spending settlement have put pressure on all fronts". The merchant's eye view is of a divided system where "LEA schools must make do and mend while GM schools have additional money - a contentious point in some circles I concede - some of which is spent on books."

His statement issued after the mid-October publisher-teacher meeting used campaigning language. "Schools are being asked to introduce a revised national curriculum, which requires new books, without the resources to do so. Radical action is required, both at central and local level, if Britain is to meet its educational objectives. Schools do not have the books to support the Government's aspirations.

The next phase of the money-for-books campaign will be a set of Book Trust recommendations due to arrive on Gillian Shephard's desk in the new year. The Trust, a book-promoting charity rather than a sales-promoting trade body, has formed a committee chaired by the former chief inspector of schools, Eric Bolton. It is contacting some 40 schools and asking teachers what books they want. A "needs-based survey" is the jargon, and it too will report on data gathered directly from schools rather than depending on the sketchy information gleaned from the RO1 forms that LEAs must submit to the Department of the Environment. Results from the Book Trust survey will provide guidance on what schools ought to spend, though not on what books to buy. It repeats a similar exercise in 1993 and, once again, the recommendations will be a long way from what is actually spent. Last time round Book Trust benchmarks were: primary, Pounds 35 per pupil (Pounds 20 for class books and Pounds 15 for library books); secondary, Pounds 47.50 per pupil (Pounds 35 for class books and Pounds 12.50 for library books).

Even these wish-list figures amount to a mere 2 per cent of school budgets. Hardly an excessive proportion of overall expenditure when nobody, bar the odd software sales rep, can disagree that books and education are inseparable. This last phrase was used by The TES editor Patricia Rowan in the pamphlet containing the 1993 Book Trust recommendations. The question which remains is what happens when book expenditure is all but lopped off from school budgets. The Educational Publishers' Council could provide a rough answer by taking returns from the 450 secondary schools that responded to its survey and matching their book spending to exam league tables.

Additionally the Office for Standards in Education could release the book-purchasing data that its inspectors are gathering and we can look to Northern Ireland where there is a marked correlation between relatively high book spending and good examination results.

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