Elizabeth Truss speaks to education publishers about curriculum reform

Education and Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss speaks to publishers about textbooks and materials for the new curriculum.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP

It’s a pleasure to be here - and great to see BESA and the Publishers’ Association leading the discussion about the introduction of the new curriculum

I want to talk to you today about the thinking behind our reforms - about what we aim to do, and how we see the new curriculum being introduced - and what that means for publishers and suppliers to education.

In defence of the textbook

I want to start, though, with a defence of the textbook.

Not just because I’m currying favour with publishers.

Nor because I’m nostalgic about my dog-eared copy of ‘Tricolore’.

But because the humble textbook represents something quite powerful.

A textbook is a map, a guide. It’s a single thing you can pick, that starts off with basics and builds more and more on top, giving you what you need to know.

That’s a beautiful idea - knowledge and understanding, there for the taking.

And think about how we use the word ‘textbook’.

Call something textbook and you’re saying it’s the right way to do something. A textbook cricket shot. A textbook driving manoeuvre.

One of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions is ‘exemplary; accurate’ or ‘instructively typical’.

There’s an entire social meaning around the word ‘textbook’.

So it’s odd that almost uniquely in the developed world, in England, textbooks have fallen out of fashion.

Buried deep in the 2011 TIMSS study - an international comparison of maths and science teaching - is an analysis of use of materials.

Seventy-five per cent of teachers in countries studied use textbooks as the basis of instruction for 10-year-olds [fourth grade in TIMSS].

In Germany, it’s 86%. Poland - 78%. Sweden - 89%. Korea - 99%.

In England - it’s 10%.

We are an outlier.

And in science, across the world, on average 74% of teachers use textbooks as the basis of instruction for 14-year-olds [eighth grade].

In Korea, it’s 88%. Hong Kong - 87%. Malaysia - 83%. Chinese Taipei - 92%.

In England - it’s 8%.

Why is this?

Why is this? Why are textbooks unloved in England?

I think it’s partly progressive education philosophy - exemplified by the Plowden report of 1967 - with its concept of child centred learning, and idea there’s no best way to teach.

In that view, textbooks were - and are - seen as regimented, old-fashioned, as stifling creativity.

I remember receiving an ‘anti-colouring-in book’, which stemmed from the same philosophy. Rather than filling in lines laid out for them, children would create things out of their imagination. I am afraid my book was covered in scribbles in no time.

And today, we have had an army of consultants and commentators and theorists - all putting out this notion that that structure is restrictive.

Of course there were - and are - bad textbooks that fitted this description, and some teachers who did not use them properly.

But we used to have some excellent textbooks. Like the SMP Maths or Nuffield textbooks of the 1970s and 80s - arguably the best in the world, in their day.

Now, if you want to see the best examples, you have to go to Singapore, or Hong Kong. The Singapore maths texts ‘My Pals are Here’ series, for example, which are now being used in a number of English schools, are engaging, lively books that children love.

Essential knowledge

It’s no surprise that these high-performing countries are creating great textbooks. Children will only flourish if they understand essential concepts and knowledge.

All the evidence suggests that gaining core knowledge is vital to progress. Early vocabulary is the best predictor of later reading ability. Once you have a strong grasp of arithmetic, you know if you’ve pressed the right keys on your calculator. Once you understand chronology you can research history. Once you have geographical knowledge you can get the most from Google maps.

It’s easier to pick up and grow knowledge, once you have a solid core.

And the skills that the modern economy requires - analytical, abstract reasoning and higher cognitive functions - are best built on a foundation of essential literacy, numeracy and knowledge.

So the best way to learn is not to let children have a free for all - but to provide a gradual layering of knowledge, accumulating understanding in a clear and structured way.

That’s the idea a textbook symbolises.

Of course teachers should be using the best methods and materials in line with evidence and experience. But to have such a low rate of usage of a technology the rest of the world relies on should at the very least be questioned.

Textbooks are good for students, parents, and teachers

And for students, textbooks help give a sense of ownership over the course they are studying. It means that they can catch up or read ahead, and study core concepts on their own.

For parents, we know that their involvement in education is one of the most important factors in attainment. With a textbook, a parent can get a sense of what’s expected, see the course structure, or refresh their own knowledge.

And, of course, textbooks deal with the annoyance of bits of photocopied paper getting covered in orange juice in the school bag - getting lost, mixed up and half-destroyed in on the way home.

And for teachers - I know that many get frustrated with the anti-textbook orthodoxy. They have to spend time reinventing the wheel, collecting different worksheets and bits and pieces into one place, writing their own materials.

Most teachers want to teach - not produce materials.

In places like Shanghai, where using textbooks is a given, teachers can spend their time working with their colleagues on the best way of getting concepts across the students. They can help them understand the subject and develop their teaching skills - rather than worrying about getting the photocopying done.

So for children, parents and teachers - a good textbook is far from restrictive.

It’s liberating.

But textbooks need to change

Now, this isn’t to say that textbooks are immune to change.

Sometimes, in the past, textbooks have been too focused on teaching to the test - rather than providing a rich immersion in a subject.

Things like introducing past papers too early, or bad pacing, or uninspiring content - that narrows learning, rather than aiding it.

And technology is changing how content can be delivered.

The economics of textbooks show it’s an industry ripe for disruption: textbook publishing has inelastic demand, and commands margins unthinkable in fiction, travel, journalistic or higher education publishing.

New technology

In Korea, for example, they’ve got a programme called Smart Education, where they’re introducing digital textbooks.

They use multimedia content, animations, virtual reality - all of which can be altered to fit each student’s ability level - but the actual material is the same.

They understand that we shouldn’t confuse content and means. Textbooks might be online, or touchscreen, or tablets, or whatever human ingenuity comes up with next.

But the idea of a textbook - the understanding there is an essential body of knowledge and understanding - that principle is the same.

I think it’s important that we consider all options and allow no orthodoxies to go unchallenged.

Because we can leave no stone unturned in the drive to improve education.

If good resources and better textbooks can widen horizons and inspire children, then we need better resources and better textbooks.

Curriculum reform essential for modern economy

It’s the reason we’re changing the curriculum, too.

A knowledge-rich curriculum is essential for new world economy.

Technology and globalisation are changing the way the world works.

Across the world, the trend is towards an ‘hour-glass’ shaped labour market.

The number of managerial jobs in the UK is projected to go up by 18%; and professional and technical jobs, 14%.

There are still manual jobs which are not easily automated.

But admin and mid-level manual jobs will fall by 11% - squeezed by computers and outsourcing

And in that world, education success is the same thing as economic success.

Analysis by the OECD, for example, shows the association between academic performance and growth rates increased by a third between 1960 to 1980 and 1980 to 2000.

Learning from the best countries

And if we want to improve our education system, we can learn from the best countries.

The top-performing countries keep a core of academic subjects until late secondary.

Like Germany. After they received bad results in PISA in 2000, it experienced what was known as ‘PISA schock’.

So they lengthened the school day, gave greater autonomy to teachers, created nationwide performance standards.

And crucially, they strengthened the core curriculum.

They previously had a very strict division between vocational and academic education. But now, students continue with academic subjects - whatever education route they’ve chosen.

And that’s something we see in other high-performing countries, too.

Japan, for example, had the highest average numeracy of all countries studied in a recent OECD survey of adult skills.

According to the Nuffield Foundation, over 95% of Japanese pupils do maths to upper secondary.

The equivalent figure in Germany is 90%. In Hong Kong it’s over 95%. In Singapore, 66%.

In England, it’s just over 20%.

We want to learn from these countries.

Essential knowledge in each subject

So in each subject, we’re clarifying and focusing the curriculum on essential knowledge.

In maths, we’re encouraging children to become fluent in their times tables at a younger age, removing calculators from primary tests - and giving children a stronger foundation in the vital elements of maths, like arithmetic and fractions.

We’re making GCSEs more challenging and rigorous, with pupils covering more content and more non-routine problems which expect students to apply themselves in different ways - in areas like ratios, proportions, interest-rates.

And we’re introducing core maths, so that the majority of young people will be studying maths right up to 18 - just like those high-performing countries.

We’re equally ambitious in the sciences. The curriculum will build scientific knowledge sequentially across each stage, and thanks to the EBacc, we’ve seen an increase in pupils studying the sciences.

In design and technology, we will expose students to the most exciting and transformative technologies - 3D printing, robotics, biomimicry, computer-aided design.

Coding - one of the essential skills of the 21st century - is in the curriculum from age 5, and the new computing curriculum includes 2 programming languages by the end of key stage 3 - and pupils will learn to handle detailed, abstract computing processes as they progress.

In English, we’re making sure the basics are in place. We’ve introduced the phonics check, and children will now sit a new spelling, punctuation and grammar test when they leave primary school.

At GCSE, we are being much more firm about sloppy mistakes and poor grammar - keeping standards high into secondary school.

And in languages - primary schools will be required to teach a foreign language from 7, while at secondary, we’re placing more emphasis on essential grammar.

So in every subject, you can see that principle of core knowledge being pursued.

But no longer telling how to teach

But there’s one thing here which is often forgotten.

The new curriculum is actually much slimmer than its predecessor.

It’s focused on what children learn. But it doesn’t interfere in how teachers teach.

The curriculum was once described as the secret garden. Not very secret. But apt.

Well, I think government put up the trellises - where things will grow - how high the plants should go.

But it’s up to school to get the plants - that’s pupils - to flourish and bloom and reach up that structure.

And you can help them do that job.

So it’s up to central government to set high expectations.

It’s up to schools to work out how to inspire and motivate students to reach the required standards - using the international evidence about what works.

And it’s up to you to provide the materials, resources and tools to help them.

Introduction of the curriculum

You can see that principle in the way we’re introducing the curriculum, too.

We’re making resources available to help: funding for teacher training school alliances, funding CPD for some key subjects, such as mathematics and computing, and using the subject expert groups to identify potential gaps in resources for new topics

But there is no one-size-fits all, national roll-out.

Put all those things together, and it’s a huge opportunity.

A curriculum with higher and clearer expectations: but stops telling teachers how to teach.

Recognition that this is a transition - and support to help.

Inspection, accountability and governance that focus on the end goal - performance - and leave it up to schools to work out how to get there.

All these things mean more scope for innovation in how the curriculum is delivered.

And that’s what we’re starting to see.

Innovation in supporting new curriculum

Take the Japan Foundation. They’re encouraging primary schools to adopt Japanese. They plan to help schools provide the subject, developing materials and linking up schools with each other.

So they’ve recognised the curriculum’s requirements for languages at primary - but have developed it.

Or MyKindaCrowd. They’re a social enterprise who work with employers to launch ‘challenges’ to young people.

They submit their ideas in response, and the best ones win prizes - and in some cases, get offers of jobs or apprenticeships.

They’re getting companies to come up with challenges specifically designed to support the computing curriculum.

Again, they understand the essential requirement of the curriculum - but are coming up with imaginative new ways to get it into schools.

That sort of imaginative, high-quality approach is the sort of thing you - publishers and suppliers - could be doing.

Help England fall back in love with the idea of textbooks

So as you spend today discussing the future in detail, I hope you bear this context in mind.

The principle of a good textbook is as important as ever: a structured progression through essential knowledge.

The new curriculum has that idea at its heart.

However it’s explored - whatever new technologies you pursue, in whatever formats - it’s up to you to help translate it into schools.

You can help England fall back in love with textbooks - and the idea of education they symbolise.

Published 2 December 2013