Now this is what I call a Textbook

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In days of old, when teachers were bold, this is what a school textbook used to be like.

Before the not-missed-at-all Miss Truss was given her marching orders she made a number of speeches in which she advocated a return to the regular use of the  textbook. As such she was simply providing yet another example of the DfE policy-making process as being ‘Come up with a vote-winning bit of spin and don’t actually bother to think about the implications of implementing it’.

The problem is that the production of textbooks is now very different from the way it was back then in the days when everything was apparently wonderful. In those days school budgets were more bountiful and publishers could afford to employ armies of reviewers, editors, proof-readers, picture researchers and designers, and authors were carefully chosen as being recognised experts in their field. Their royalty rates, although never more than 10%, meant that reasonably good sales over an extended period of time would provide an adequate return on their considerable efforts. And there was a wide variety of small, independent publishers looking to specialise in a range of subject areas and age-ranges and to take risks on books that might or might not be particularly successful, providing something of quality and value had been produced.

But of course, like everything else outside the DfE, things have changed over the past fifteen or so years. For a start there are now just a couple of really big educational publishers, considerably reducing choice. Authors are now usually relatively inexperienced, foolishly hoping that being published will look good on their CVs and as a result prepared to work for next to nothing – often just a share of 5% on a work that will probably be out-dated by a curriculum change before its first reprint. Content is now all about delivering the narrow requirements of the specification with an emphasis on teaching to the test, rather than providing a broader, more pedagogically sound coverage.

Meanwhile manuscripts go through largely unchecked by subject specialists and desk editors. Picture research budgets have been slashed, and page-by-page design is a thing of the past. Titles are focused on the main subjects that have the biggest GCSE entries and the most extensive book-buying habits, such as science, maths and geography. And as prices have risen, classroom sets have become increasingly expensive and unaffordable. No wonder so many teachers have chosen to produce their own content more suited to the needs of their own learners and their preferred teaching styles.

There are, however, some things that Ms Textbook Truss might have suggested that would have been more worthwhile. The knowledge-base of most subjects has now become so extensive that it has become increasingly difficult for teachers to cram everything in to the limited number of periods a week they have with each class. As such, high quality independent study support resources of the electronic kind would be a valuable development. Unfortunately at present these are usually produced by new-media companies with little or no pedagogic experience, and more with the intention of winning an award for the cleverness of largely superficial so-called ‘interactive’ animation than with actually assisting learning. So something to improve the standards of electronic resources would have been something really worth speaking about. At the same time, there are teachers in many non-core subjects who could usefully be guided towards the more effective use of support resources within their lesson planning.

But wait, wasn’t Truss missing a trick here? Just think about it: ‘Text’ and ‘Book’, ie a Book of Texts. Not the ‘No need to think or plan, ready-made just pop-in-the-microwave, everything blended into in one easy-to-open package NC/GCSE/A level course of study’ that they all are these days, but surely if we are heading back to the golden age of the 1950’s, what’s really needed are books that contain a series of learned academic discourses on the subject in question? No engaging photos or artwork or course, except maybe four pages of black and white ‘plates’ placed on their own in the very centre of the book. And if these were produced as e-books they could be distributed very cheaply to all children to read on their smart phones on the bus on the way home…

If that doesn’t raise academic standards, All Change Please! doesn’t know what will…