In a move that in normal times would have made national news, the Department for Education last month launched a frankly extraordinary procurement process for government-approved classroom resources.
Ministers are looking to spend up to £4 million of taxpayers’ money on endorsing and publishing English, maths and science resources for key stages 1-3, which will sit on a single platform, to be heavily promoted by the government to schools across the country.
I am sure that the government’s efforts are well-intended. And, at first glance, it could look like a welcome investment in high-quality resources that can help to mitigate learning loss and save teachers’ time.
But, on closer inspection, there are several critical questions that ministers failed to answer before ploughing ahead with this ill-thought-through scheme.
Trust teachers to choose the right teaching resources
Firstly – and most importantly – the DfE has apparently not considered what is actually useful for teachers. How Teachers Use Textbooks, a new report by Public First, commissioned by the Publishers’ Association (where I am chief executive), emphasises that choice is imperative for our educators – and there is no appetite for ministerial micromanaging in their professional lives.
When asked, teachers were explicit that “most children in the world don’t fit into this neat little box for the government”. A unilateral government-endorsed resource is an ideological break from how the UK’s education system operates, and undermines trust in teachers to choose the best resources for their pupils.
Then there is a question of quality. The DfE is looking to launch the platform in September – less than three months after the contract will be awarded. What does this say about the quality of the products that will be available? How will their efficacy for improving attainment be proven? And how will teachers find the time to review the materials, without totally upending their planning for the school year ahead?
Moreover, it is worth remembering that there are currently close to 7 million pupils in the state sector between the ages of 5 and 15. This procurement exercise will see just 60p of investment per pupil in education materials for English, maths and science. At a time when the attainment gap is wider than ever, surely the money would be better spent on targeted schemes that actually benefit pupils?
Undermining Covid catch-up efforts
Finally, from a publishing perspective, there is significant concern as to what this latest approach will mean for our ability to serve the needs of our customers.
Even though the government-sanctioned resources are unlikely to be of a particularly high quality, there will inevitably be budgetary and policy pressures that lead to significant market impact for education providers – undermining future investments in education products. This will be to the detriment of the education ecosystem.
And all of this is taking place against the backdrop of the Covid catch-up effort. Since March 2020, publishers have done all that they can to support pupils, parents and practitioners. I have been very proud of the generosity displayed by our membership at a tough time for the education sector, and know that publishers will do all they can to help over the months and years to come.
The DfE must not undermine these efforts. A diverse and vibrant market in education resources is imperative if teachers and their students are to continue to have access to a range of high-quality tools that genuinely meet their needs. Now is not the time for another costly mistake, which fails to take an evidence-based approach to education policymaking.
The whole sector needs to work together to support education recovery for the nation. Unfortunately, this misguided procurement process risks undermining that effort. We strongly assert that critical government support should be used elsewhere, where it is most needed and can be most effective.
Stephen Lotinga is the chief executive officer of the Publishers Association