Turn the page on `anti-textbook ethos', report urges

21st November 2014 at 00:00
But critics say teachers must be free to choose their materials

Education in England is being damaged by poor-quality textbooks and an underlying "anti-textbook ethos", according to a new paper endorsed by the government.

The policy document by Tim Oates, who led the government's national curriculum review, suggests state approval of school textbooks - as happens in Hong Kong and Singapore - as a possible solution. It warns that a "chronic market failure" in England has resulted in textbooks that have a "myopic focus" on exams and are of a much lower quality than those used by high-performing systems overseas.

"England has fallen behind the times," states the paper, which has an introduction by schools minister Nick Gibb. "We may not have been conscious of the movement in England away from wide use of high-quality textbooks, but it has happened.

"We have picked up some bad habits and failed to notice the emergence in other nations of extremely well-theorised, well-designed and carefully implemented textbooks."

Mr Gibb was yesterday expected to call on educational publishers to bring England's textbooks up to international standards, citing Mr Oates' paper as evidence of the need for improvement. In the introduction to the paper, Mr Gibb calls for a "renaissance of intellectually demanding and knowledge-rich textbooks".

Mr Oates claims that an "underlying anti-textbook ethos" exists among England's teacher-training colleges and education academics. A research director at exam board Cambridge Assessment, he told TES that Ofsted reports criticising overuse of textbooks were also part of the problem.

His paper points to the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which found that just 10 per cent of students in England said their teachers used textbooks as the basis for teaching in maths, compared with 95 per cent in Finland and 70 per cent in Singapore.

There was an even greater disparity in science, with only 4 per cent of pupils in England saying that their teachers used textbooks "as a basis for instruction", compared with 94 per cent in Finland and 68 per cent in Singapore.

Mr Oates argues that high-quality textbooks are the next necessary reform because they support pupils and "free teachers up to concentrate on refining pedagogy".

Mary Bousted, textbook author and general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said books could be an "invaluable resource". But she was concerned that too much emphasis on them could reduce teacher freedoms. "Teachers need to exercise their own professional judgement about what resources they will use," she said. "Teachers want to be creative about their teaching and want to create materials that they can use in their classrooms.

"If there was any suggestion that a complete reliance on certain high-quality textbooks was going to raise standards, and if the justification is that it is happening elsewhere, then I am not buying into that. Many of those other top-performing countries now want teacher creativity because they realise they have an overly rigid school system."

Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, and Caroline Wright, director of the British Educational Suppliers Association, refute Mr Oates' comments. "We absolutely disagree that UK textbooks are not up to scratch," they say in a joint statement. "UK educational publishers create world-class teaching and learning materials for schools which are used all over the world, Singapore included, as evidenced by the fact that 40 per cent of British publishers' revenues come from overseas sales.

"We have greatly welcomed the flexibility this government has introduced into the education environment and support the choice such flexibility brings. State approval of textbooks goes totally against this and would stifle the market in the UK. It would hinder development of a dynamic, innovative sector, reduce choice for teachers and students and undermine one of Britain's export success stories."

But Mr Oates uses high-performing Shanghai as an example: he says textbooks are used extensively in the city to "provide structure to lessons and to pupil progression".

"The complexity of lesson preparation is greatly reduced," his paper says. "Teachers can focus on refining and polishing lessons, rather than originating novel materials which focus on a high level of differentiation within learner groups."

He believes good textbooks do not reduce teacher independence or professionalism. "They mean that many of the things that bog [teachers] down in terms of preparation of materials and selection of valid assessment.are already done for them," he says.

Mr Oates said that if textbooks did become governmentapproved, a proper accountability system would be essential. Alternatively, the quality of textbooks could be scrutinised by a national conference of education publishers and teachers' representatives.

But Dr Bousted said: "It is like King Canute turning back the tide. However much we would want the unimpeachable resource and authority [of a textbook], other sources of information are out there and students are going to use them."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today