School closures during the Covid-19 pandemic have posed exceptional challenges for teachers, parents and children, and placed an immense strain on all aspects of the education system. Whether it be in tackling the best way to keep schools open for key workers and vulnerable children, to skilling up and delivering lessons remotely; in overseeing free school meals to those that need them; to offering alternative provision for those who don’t have digital access, teachers have been faced with the dilemma of how to keep teaching and learning going for all children while keeping their staff and children safe. And if shutting schools was difficult, opening them up again poses so many more issues and risks. How do you phase all children back into face-to-face teaching, and by when? How do you manage the practice of sending books home at primary, or sharing textbooks at secondary? Where are the funding priorities, the deep cleaning of classrooms, or adequate numbers of books to facilitate new ways of working, or new digital subscriptions? What looks certain is that hybrid learning—a mix of in-school and home-based education—will need to continue for the foreseeable future. Schools will need to be equipped to manage this.
In response to Covid-19, publishers have had to regroup and rethink how they work in order to remain close to schools and provide them with the best possible support, because furthering education sits at the heart of what we all do. In the course of the summer, educational providers have made freely available many of their high-quality, digitally delivered, teacher-written curriculum programmes to ensure that schools have had access to structured content. They have offered substantial discounts on many print products, and through the Copyright Licensing Agency have relaxed arrangements so that up to 30% of a resource can be photocopied—the equivalent of a term’s work. In some cases, teams have been put in place to support schools with webinars (from mental health, to getting the most out of online learning), additional training and implementation support. There have also been initiatives from the BBC and Oak National Academy providing new free services, and again publishers have focused on the content needs of schools and parents and worked in partnership with these organisations, granting free permissions for resources to be included in or linked from BBC Bitesize Daily, or the video lessons created for lockdown.
The demand for high-quality content, combined with great teaching, has never been more important. As the latest Education Endowment research (June 2020) shows, while many children will have managed to keep abreast of their learning thanks to online resources, great platforms, and parental support, there is evidence that for some children the reverse is true. Between 2011–19, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates narrowed in primary and secondary schools, although it was still a matter of concern that it was not narrowing fast enough. The impact of school closures is expected to reverse all progress made over the past 10 years to reduce the attainment gap for disadvantaged children, and it may widen even further. Physical or “blended” (digital and print) resources will remain an essential part of the mix to help manage this digital divide and reduce the gap.
The dollar question
Set against this need and the immense effort from publishers to support teachers, we now face significant challenges in the face of a lack of funding. In research carried out by the Publishers Association with Teacher Tapp, the findings underlined the value teachers, parents and pupils placed on physical resources. However, 57% of headteachers don’t believe they have funding available to buy the emergency print materials their pupils need. Only 14% of teachers in the most deprived schools believe their pupils can access digital textbooks, compared with 34% of teachers in more affluent schools. And only 4% of teachers in state schools believe all their pupils have adequate access to a device (laptop, or tablet) to learn from. It is essential that schools receive the funding they need to top up their book stock so that they can manage hybrid teaching and send home resources, and to purchase the best online subscriptions and interventions to help close the attainment gap. There is a sea of free, but as schools’ needs change, publishers need to invest in innovative new content and the right, evidence-based and impactful resources for a post-Covid-19 world.
We have demonstrated our commitment to support teachers through the pandemic. A thriving publishing industry is now needed to continue to drive quality, support progression, ensure the content is as good as the technology, and offer teachers genuine choice in meeting their very real and varied needs. Rather than money spent on initiatives that introduce new quick-fix, hastily made and untested programmes, there needs to be ringfenced funding for schools to invest in high-quality resources that have been tried, tested and developed with schools. These, together with the dedicated wrap-around support that publishers offer, will ensure that teachers and students get the very best value and outcomes. In this way, the UK publishing industry—renowned worldwide—can continue to sustain education and support the heroic work teachers and parents have been doing over the past 12 weeks.