Textbook case

Oh dear, here we go again. Minister, backed by expert, wins over-excited headlines in right-of-centre newspapers alleging that British education publishers are producing below standard textbooks, and implying that’s why schools don’t buy and use them as they should.

The maddening thing is, some of the minister’s analysis is correct, and important. Schools in this country do use textbooks less than other higher performing jurisdictions, such as Shanghai and Singapore. Actually, far less: in those places nearly all teachers use textbooks most of the time;  here it can be as little as one-tenth. So that message is frankly welcome: decades of anti-textbook rhetoric from teacher trainers and local authority advisors have left a vaguely guilty sense among teachers that they’re not doing their job properly unless they make up all their lessons from scratch, or borrow them from each other, rather than rely on tried and tested methods in the maths or science or literacy scheme that they can buy from one of several fiercely competing domestic education publishers.

To the extent that Nick Gibb, the recently returned education minister, is encouraging more enthusiastic use of textbooks in our classrooms, his message is wholly welcome. I would say that, wouldn’t I? It means spending more on our product. But actually I would say that anyway, honest I would: I have become more and more persuaded in recent years that excellently produced textbooks are a key feature of delivering quality learning.

A quick interjection is (apologies) necessary here. What do I mean by textbook? I don’t mean just a self-standing fat A4 tome stuffed with facts and sums and exam tips. I mean what is now the standard complete bundle: exceptionally carefully designed books, with attractive and learning-designed layouts, yes – but also supported by high quality teacher guides, online planning, digital assessment, e-content ranging from interactives to videos, all usable on tablets, laptops or even smart phones. No-one really buys or uses anything less these days. But they’re still "textbooks", or at least, "textbooks schemes". So that’s what we’re talking about.

Tim Oates, the rightly esteemed director of assessment research at Cambridge Assessment, produced the "Could Do Better" report in 2010 that got this argument going. It’s a good report, and I believe that the education publishing industry has responded. I’m not sure anyone else has, but that’s a different matter. Mr Gibb, no doubt wanting to stir matters up again, asked Oates to have another bash – I choose that word precisely – and Oates duly obliged last week with an update on his report. It’s a far weaker piece of work, and doesn’t stand up the claims being made.

Most of its critique of UK-created textbooks is out of date. Mr Gibb claims that his "advisors" have reviewed the new curriculum content that we, as publishers, sent in to the department early this year. I have to conclude that they have, in the case of mathematics, simply compared what we have produced to maths products from the Far East, and decided they’re not the same, ergo they’re not so good.  So much for careful evidence building.

Whole cultural package

The reality (as Oates acknowledges, by the by) is that the Far Eastern systems are a whole cultural package, requiring training, meticulous and rigorous application of the principles, etc etc.  I’d argue that the way the textbooks are laid out is frankly not the most important reason for students performing better in mathematics in those places – there are much bigger reasons.

But the key point isn’t that. It’s that we UK publishers have, in fact, worked very hard to produce exceptionally high quality materials for the new primary maths and science curricula – materials that unquestionably stand up to any unprejudiced international comparison. Actually we, at Collins, looked at the Singapore maths product, and we are far from convinced that it will deliver a better result in English schools.

So it is not only very tiresome to have our products dismissed so casually, without any real engagement or discussion. It’s also potentially destructive: a hugely missed opportunity. The minister could have taken the chance last week to encourage schools to spend on materials that will support his better-constructed, more demanding curriculum. Our very recently published materials do exactly that.

Instead, Mr Gibb is raising the vague threat that he’ll push schools towards buying the content that he thinks is best (probably not by force, but, as he did with phonics rather successfully, by hefty bribery). We’ll see. But before he does any such thing, he should think very carefully about whether he will really raise standards in the UK by driving the adoption of a single size fits all solution – a kind of "onesie" for learning.  I greatly doubt it.

He noted, rather hilariously, that he was encouraging us to produce not what would sell, but what he thinks is best. The reason we produce the materials we do is because we spend inordinate time working with the best practising teachers and experts, and refining our product with infinite care (in the horribly limited time available, given the timing of curriculum change). Mr Gibb and his advisors should spend more time understanding what we do, and how, and why.  I profoundly hope he will, over the coming months – not least because the next wave, GCSE maths, is arguably an even bigger deal. And we’re already on the point of publication.


Colin Hughes is m.d. of Collins Learning and has written this piece in a personal capacity, rather than in his role as chair of the Publishers Association's Educational Publishers Council.