Such is the impact of the austerity cuts, particularly on public and school libraries, that it can take a while to find someone in the book industry with good things to say about the next five years of Tory government.
So it’s refreshing to hear Collins Learning m.d. Colin Hughes, who chairs the Educational Publishers Council at the Publishers Association, sounding positive about former education secretary Michael Gove’s school reforms and the continuing education strategy, now in the hands of his successor Nicky Morgan and minister Nick Gibb. Gove didn’t just uproot the curriculum, he upgraded it, Hughes accepts. And while the previous couple of decades saw school pupils and their learning materials becoming too focused on exam results per se, there’s a will now to teach in a fuller fashion and beyond the syllabus—and that adds to the value of the education process. Good news for publishers, who can take advantage by broadening their lists.
Raising education standards is as important for publishers in the UK as it is for teachers. And criticism, when it comes, can be stinging. At the PA/British Educational Suppliers Association conference last autumn, Gibb did not mince his words in conveying to publishers his view that they would have to raise their game on textbooks. He brooked no counter-argument (though there were plenty), making himself abrasive with a purpose; he clearly wanted to shock publishers into moving in the direction he had decided—whether on good, or arguably less good, advice—was needed. Schools pay you from the public purse, you have a responsibility to do as well as world-class textbooks from Singapore and Shanghai, he said. Response has been swift: Hughes’ own stable will next month launch a new primary series, the Shanghai Maths Project.
But engagement does not mean acquiescence: there has been “a barney” with Gibb and his advisers, Hughes acknowledges, and more are likely as the dialogue continues. “It won’t be smooth sailing,” he feels. As those who have struggled with the government on Open Access policy or on copyright know, there is a common challenge: how to educate the educators.
And a good education is a rounded one. All too often the Conservatives’ economic austerity programme has drifted too far into other areas. After Morgan’s controversial comments last year on the virtues of studying science versus the career-destroying uselessness of arts and the humanities, it was good to hear Labour leadership front-runner Jeremy Corbyn describe the arts enthusiastically this week as “a vital part of how we communicate with each other, how we live with each other, how we celebrate being human”. A timely lesson for all.