s216_Elizabeth-TrussShortly before Christmas, Elizabeth Truss spoke to publishers about textbooks. She cited evidence from the 2011 TIMSS (Trends in International Maths and Science Study) that in UK schools, only ten per cent of maths teaching for ten year olds, and 8 per cent of science teaching to fourteen year olds, was based on a textbook. International comparisons were much higher, and for subjects other than maths or science, the use of textbooks would have been lower still.

The survey included private as well as state schools, and the bulk of those using textbooks will have been in the former.  Textbooks, as Elizabeth Truss points out, were driven out of state primary schools following the Plowden Report of 1967.  Paragraphs 591-6 contain the roots of many current problems, including the move away from knowledge as a key part of learning.

Non-fiction books are positively discouraged in the move to make first-hand experience the basis of education. The whole ghastly document, complete with an endorsement from Anthony Crosland, can be downloaded here.

Galore Park, our one remaining publisher of primary textbooks, produces large-format, attractively-illustrated books on the theme of “So you really want to learn…” covering the whole prep school curriculum, and linked to Common Entrance. Books, though, cost £20 to £30 – or £6-900 for a class of thirty for each subject.

Private sector parents pay, as parents do throughout Europe. In Spain, where children have so many textbooks that they bring them to school in wheelie bags, parents of even seven year old children have a bill of around £200 pa for textbooks, for which they receive a government grant. We are spending more on education than in Spain, but we are spending our money on different things – chiefly, on an army of teaching assistants, ostensibly for learning support, but in fact more often to contain poor behaviour, and computers.

As a result, our children have far too few books, and read far too little non-fiction. The small charity I run, A Book of My Own, now has to spend money on science and language textbooks for children who otherwise would not have books at all, and there is a lively market in revision books, chiefly bought by parents. Put differently, if parents don’t buy books, their children don’t get them.

My alter ego, Quaestor, made this point in The Guardian’s comments columns last week. After the usual assertion that I was talking nonsense, a parent wrote this:

All state secondary schools give their students the text books they require and they are expected to take them home.

Well, my daughter’s state school (good according to Ofsted) doesn’t. Have you got any evidence for this sweeping generalisation?

How else would students be able to do homework or study at home?

How, indeed! That question prompted an embittered chuckle, believe me. Here’s how it works in my daughter’s school:

1) They don’t get much homework, partly because of this very problem, I suspect.

2) They are sometimes expected to look things up on the internet, although rarely are they provided with a list of sites where the information is reliable or the language age-appropriate.

3) They are occasionally given small teacher-made booklets of 6 to 8 A5 pages for specific topics or assignments. These are of varying quality, but often contain spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, illegible illustrations, ambiguous phrasing and inadequate information.

4) In year 7 it was suggested that parents buy a commercial revision guide so they and their children could consult it for maths homework.

5) For the rest, they are expected to work from what they have written or pasted into their exercise books. A big problem with this, of course, is that the quality of what’s in their exercise books is wholly dependent on how good their teacher is, particularly since they are usually not allowed to take notes (i.e. not allowed to write anything down unless the teacher tells them to).

The result has been years of frequent distressing homework crises and a cynical attitude toward homework on my daughter’s part.

Things are a bit better now that she is in GCSE. At least the science textbooks are available to consult online, although she still has no textbooks she can bring home.

Conservative Ministers are regularly berated by our opponents for not understanding education at all. In addition to being in touch with parents’ and children’s experience,  Elizabeth Truss makes two fundamental points that show much deeper knowledge of the issues either than the Plowden Committee or than the Blob. The first is

…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

And the second, that 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.

This was my own experience with learning languages, where the textbook allowed the language to stand still so that I could observe, study and understand it. My younger brother, unlucky enough to catch the first wave of progressive language teaching, had no book, did not understand the work, and remains justifiably angry about it fifty years on.

The Blob still thinks Plowden was right, and will do whatever it can to keep out textbooks.  It must not be allowed to succeed.

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