Nick Gibb speaks to education publishers about quality textbooks
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
School Reform Minister Nick Gibb outlines how high-quality textbooks can benefit teachers, students and parents.
Thank you - it’s a great pleasure to be here today (20 November 2014) and I’d like to thank the Educational Publishers Council and the British Educational Suppliers Association for inviting me.
Last May at the Kettner’s Educational Publishers’ lunch I said that the government’s new approach to education policy, designed to foster the autonomy of the teaching profession and sweep away the prescriptive and ideological National Strategies, meant that there is now an important leadership role for educational publishers. And that role is not to pander to the lowest common denominator in the scramble for market share, but to develop in young people the academic knowledge and the scholarship skills that the old curriculum has driven out of too many schools.
This time last year my predecessor Liz Truss issued a call to arms to publishers to introduce high-quality textbooks to support the new national curriculum.
Today’s conference is called ‘Delivering quality in changing times’. There is a lot of change in our schools. This term has seen the introduction of the new curriculum, modelled on those in the very best education systems around the world:
- in maths, this means a greater focus on getting the fundamentals right, with children becoming fluent in times tables at an earlier age and studying formal, efficient written methods of arithmetic - we’ve removed calculators from primary tests to ensure this focus is maintained throughout primary school
- in English, we have increased the level of demand from an early age, with greater emphasis on grammar and vocabulary throughout the curriculum - we have embedded the use of systematic synthetic phonics in the curriculum because evidence shows that it is the most effective approach to the teaching of reading
- the new knowledge-rich science curriculum focuses on the big ideas in science
- the new computing curriculum emphasises the hard elements of computer science, including how computers work and programming - it equips pupils to design their own computer programs
- and all primary school children in maintained schools aged 7 to 11 years are now required to study a foreign language to help prepare them for life in our globalised economy
Our reforms to qualifications will also help to drive up standards:
- English GCSEs will require the study of a range of intellectually challenging and substantial texts - whole books, not just extracts - the new qualifications will encourage students to read widely and reward those that can demonstrate the breadth of their reading
- maths GCSEs will be larger qualifications - they’re more challenging and provide assurances of a firm grasp of the fundamentals while stretching the most able
- redesigned A levels will provide a stronger basis for transition to higher education
- any young person who doesn’t reach a good level in English and maths by age 16 will need to study those subjects in post-16 education
- and we have taken the important step of introducing ‘core maths’ qualifications for post-16 students who achieve at least a C at GCSE maths but don’t go on to take AS or A level maths
Our education plan will underpin a transformation of the education system by setting out and increasing the essential knowledge and skills the next generation will need to compete successfully for jobs in the global jobs market.
But these changes are only part of the story. They will not deliver quality in themselves.
They are necessary but not sufficient to raise academic standards. That’s because behind every document setting out content to be taught - every sample assessment question - there is inevitably scope for interpretation. The real transformation always depends not on rules, but on people - and this transformation is in the hands of schools and teachers, in what happens in the classroom.
That is where the skills of teachers and the resources they use are so important. That is where a great textbook can help teachers to transform their classes - critical indeed for raising academic standards.
Why textbooks count
In 2010 Tim Oates, who chaired the national curriculum expert review panel, examined the international research and evidence around curriculum design and published his findings in his seminal paper ‘Could do better’. It said that only by learning from the very best around the world could we hope to design a world-class curriculum, and this philosophy underpinned all the work that followed and has led to the rigorous curriculum we have today.
Today Cambridge Assessment has published ‘Why textbooks count’, which analyses the use of high-quality textbooks around the world. Its message is clear - once again England has fallen behind. ‘Why textbooks count’ should rightly send shockwaves through the education system and the publishing industry.
In the controversial search for the reasons why a range of key nations have improved their systems so dramatically and so quickly, the role of high-quality textbooks has been seriously neglected. Well-focused, forensic study of these nations highlights the extent to which good teaching and high academic standards are strongly associated with adequate provision and widespread use of high-quality textbooks.
In Finland, 95% of maths teachers use a textbook as a basis for instruction, and in Singapore it’s 70%. Compare that to England, where only 10% of maths teachers use a textbook for their core teaching. And in science the story is even worse - only 4%.
What is important about this research is the quite astounding gap between this country and high-performing jurisdictions. However one measures textbook usage, it is this huge gap that matters - and it is this huge gap we need to overcome.
The paper shows us that textbooks work:
- excellent textbooks are central to education in Singapore, where they are closely linked to pedagogy
- in Shanghai, as we also know from the recent China-England maths teacher exchange, textbooks are used extensively to provide structure to lessons and progression - helping to ensure that all pupils keep up and achieve
- and at the time that Finland’s education system improved so strongly, use of textbooks was central - what were the key elements in that transformation? To quote the paper: ‘high-quality teachers and high-quality materials’
But despite these examples we know that there is, in some quarters, a distinct ‘anti-textbook’ ethos.
Where does this ethos come from? The research found that it originates not from teachers but from teacher training providers and educational research communities. Teachers themselves understand the benefits of a good textbook:
- firstly, it saves time - producing worksheets is immensely time consuming, as is endlessly trawling the internet for suitable resources - this is time that could be better spent by teachers in planning the perfect lesson or supporting their pupils to master particularly tricky elements
- it can provide a far better experience for pupils - a well-designed textbook provides a coherent, structured programme which supports a teacher’s own expertise and knowledge as well as a pupil’s
- and it helps parents support their children - good textbooks have workbooks which support homework in a positive way by providing well-structured practice exercises linked to clear explanations, which parents can understand and use to help their children
I doubt that anyone here will disagree with any of these points. But some people argue that textbooks hark back to the past, as though textbooks are from a bygone era. This view is based upon a misconception, an out-of-date idea of what textbooks are. The books used in Singapore, Shanghai, Finland are state of the art, tried and tested - firmly based on solid evidence of what works.
Others say that textbooks are too expensive, that schools can’t afford them. But if you think about the amount a school will spend on photocopying worksheets, and factor in the time teachers waste and how they could be using that time to support pupils, then a set of good textbooks can only be seen as the right investment.
Other critics said: ‘the future is digital - why bother with textbooks when online resources are clearly superior?’
I put this point to Lee Fei Chen and Joy Tan, representatives of Marshall Cavendish, one of the largest publishers in Singapore - not a country noted for shying away from technological advances. They told me that yes, Singapore is introducing digital resources, but with thought and care when there is clear evidence that those resources are as effective as their outstanding paper-based textbooks.
The very best digital resources can be powerful, providing teachers with resources and extra tools to do their job better, but they are no replacement for a good textbook - instead they should complement it.
Singapore has no plans to stop producing textbooks, of course not - they have been crafted, tested and refined with great care, and are proven to build deep understanding and support solid progress in the subject.
Whether electronic textbooks can play a similar role is an open question. Features of the physical form should not be underestimated - for example being able to easily flick backwards and forwards, quickly reminding yourself of past lessons and easily skimming what’s coming next.
In my view, clearly a future which includes digital should not exclude the textbook.
The quality of textbooks in England
But the bigger failure is a one of quality.
In this country textbooks simply do not match up to the best in the world, resulting in poorly designed resources, damaging and undermining good teaching.
Today’s paper sets out an analysis of a typical GCSE textbook - and what did it show? Incoherent presentations, little signposting of key concepts and an approach focused more on preparing for GCSE-type questions than understanding the subject.
In comparison, a secondary maths textbook from Singapore has a clear structure, strong explanations of key ideas, helpful worked examples and plenty of opportunity for essential practice to increase fluency and understanding.
And this isn’t just a problem at GCSE - most new primary curriculum textbooks fall far short of the high standards we find in Singapore, Shanghai and other countries. The best-quality text books in the world are based on rigorous research and drive high attainment, pupil enjoyment of the subject matter and higher outcomes for children from all backgrounds. These textbooks have left this country behind.
In Tim’s view there is a fundamental market failure in this country which has led to the narrow focus we find in too many GCSE textbooks.
And whilst it can be argued that accountability systems for too long encouraged a focus in schools on getting young people to a C, our changes now place much greater emphasis on progress for every child - not just those at the C/D borderline. From 2016 school performance measures (Progress 8) will, crucially, reflect GCSE point scores, not just the number of C grades.
Schools will look to publishers for solutions - for higher-quality resources which truly support every young person to reach a higher standard than ever before.
Eighteen months on from my last encounter with the textbook industry, and 1 year on from Elizabeth Truss’s call to arms, I wish I could say that the challenge has been met.
Sadly, we’re not there yet.
This government would be happy to promote textbooks, to rebut the arguments that have driven them from classrooms for too long, to challenge the anti-textbook ethos.
But we can only do that when it’s clear that the textbooks on offer in England match the best in the world.
This is my challenge to you.
There has already been some progress.
To support high-quality phonics teaching - which is key to success in early reading - we provided over £23 million of match funding for schools to help them purchase high-quality phonics training and resources. Over 14,000 schools benefited from this funding, buying thousands of top-quality textbooks and resources and putting much greater focus on phonics, and we have seen the percentage of pupils reaching the expected standard in the phonics screening check rise from 58% in 2012 to 74% in 2014.
Since last year’s conference 2 UK publishers - OUP and Maths No Problem - have joined forces with leading Singapore publishers to develop versions of their world-class primary maths textbooks for England.
It is excellent news that pupils in England will now be able to benefit from this carefully constructed, rigorous approach in line with the new curriculum.
Which is why it’s equally good news that our new network of 34 maths hubs around the country intend to trial the use of these new Singapore-based textbooks, supported by the NCETM, through this academic year and beyond. That’s a great development, and a chance to learn how textbooks can be used to drive up the quality of primary maths teaching.
All the evidence shows that high-quality textbooks are good for teachers, students and parents. For teachers, well-structured textbooks reduce workload and the perpetual ritual of producing worksheets; for students, knowledge-rich textbooks mean they can read beyond the confines of the exam syllabus, and using textbooks helps to develop those all-important scholarship skills; and for parents, textbooks are a guide to what their children are being taught in school. I would like to see all schools, both primary and secondary, using high-quality textbooks in most academic subjects, bringing us closer to the norm in high-performing countries.
I strongly believe that textbooks need to play an important role in pushing up academic standards. Ministers need to make the case for more textbooks in schools, particularly primary schools. But the industry needs to provide the type of textbook that policy makers can be proud to promote. I am sure that’s what every individual in this room is intent on providing and I hope that together we can deliver on that intent.