Risk assessments

I’ve written pieces on a number of policy measures with major implications for publishers recently: the unresolved issue of the exhaustion of rights post-Brexit; the planned requirement for monographs to be published Open Access if they are to count towards the Research Excellence Framework. Yet the concern I’ve heard from publishers over the Department for Education’s current consultation on kitemarking curriculum materials, revealed in this week’s Lead Story, is probably at a higher pitch than any. The effect of the DfE’s proposals on the market could be "devastating"; they could severely damage a successful export industry; and they raise genuinely concerning issues about government interference in what schoolchildren learn.

Crying wolf? I don’t think so. Education publishers have already tasted what it feels like to have a DfE-appointed panel pass judgement on their products, with the department’s bid to encourage a certain kind of maths teaching. Last year the Maths Mastery panel rejected textbooks from multiple major publishers, approving only a single one (from Maths–No Problem!), a situation one publisher described to me as a "complete scandal", claiming the panel had taken a very narrow educational view on the range of materials offered. And its approval mattered, because £2,000 match-funding was on offer to schools who took the approved choice, a major incentive in cash-strapped times.

Teacher workload is understandably high on the agenda for schools secretary Damian Hinds and minister Nick Gibb. Finding ways to relieve the crushing burden that is stifling teaching creativity and driving teachers out of the profession is a clear priority. Here, textbooks can help, and changing the prevailing narrative on the use of textbooks—teachers have previously felt encouraged to use their time producing their own class materials instead—is a goal education publishers clearly share with the DfE.

Whether kitemarking is the way forward, however, is quite another matter. Will it solve a real problem that is out there for teachers, or simply add another layer of unwieldy bureaucracy to the already tricky process of getting new materials out in time for the school year (which teachers also complain about)? Does the research on which the DfE’s consultation is seemingly based really say what they appear to think it does, that teachers struggle to locate good textbooks from what is on offer? And is there any evidence, internationally, that imposing government quality assurance improves educational achievement?

To these excellent points, made by publishers, The Bookseller has had little feedback from the DfE; just a brief statement. If the department refuses to have this discussion in public, so be it, but let’s hope it’s more responsive to key stakeholders behind closed doors. Real engagement is essential to mastering a subject, as any teacher will tell you. The consequences of getting this wrong would be damaging for all.