Forgive the fury of a man typing while lying on his back. This is the first outing of this mind since an operation on my spine to correct a slipped disc. As in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the recovering patient could well be a cockroach, and may be better off as one in a country whose school minister lauds a deeply undistinguished contribution to the debate on improving educational standards from Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment (http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/181744-why-textbooks-count-tim-oates.pdf). A key argument here is that the absence of “approved” textbooks has diminished UK performance, compared with educational superpowers like Finland and Singapore. Mr Oates makes it clear that his romantic preference is for paper-based resources, and that his attachments are to the world of Nuffield Science and Scottish Maths (SMP), foundation and government funded projects of the 1970s in the UK. British teachers are using too wide a diversity of methods, use their own materials and exchange materials between themselves in ways that make for an undisciplined approach to gaining the outcomes desired by Mr Oakes high stakes testing and the Ministers’ national aspiration for PISA performance.
We have to put up with a lot of this Old and New Fogyism in the UK. I was an educational textbook publisher myself in the 1970s, when the champion of the art of facing backward while walking forward was Sir Rhodes Boyson, then headmaster of Highbury Grove Comprehensive in North London, and later himself a Conservative Party Schools Minister no more effective than his current successors. I wrote to him and visited the school. He explained how the re-introduction of Latin and Greek, as well as demanding that academic staff wear their gowns while teaching, were instrumental in bringing back traditional British public school (private sector) values to public sector schools like this one.After lunch one-on-one in his private dining room I was invited to tour the school with a prefect. Sadly the Latin class had only two pupils, and no one at all showed up for Greek, but I did find myself eventually in the Craft and Design centre. Here, unmentioned by my host, was a powerhouse. Working with the London jewellery markets, a brilliant teacher had created a pupil driven skill development programme which resulted in outwork and, for many, apprenticeships in the jewellery companies, who, alongside grateful parents, had endowed the school handsomely with the resources needed to do the job. The Craft teacher had been there long before his headmaster and did not relish fame: he was committed to education, and to getting his kids what they needed to be successful in life. And as a publisher I was committed to identifying good practice and spreading it around. So we shook on a publishing deal that afternoon and the four book series published as a result was very successful.
So these things are seldom what they seem to be. While mulling on these issues I heard an earlier occupier of the education ministry in the current government, Michael Gove, telling the media what he had done to improve Britain’s teaching stock. Do you realise, he said, that one in eight teachers have a first class degree and over a third have a two: one, and it is getting better every year? And it is this better-qualified workforce who are to be given a standardised, government- approved textbook by Mr Oates? Amazingly, neither Mr Oates nor Mr Gove dwelt on the critical bedevillment factor that needs to be considered before we begin to think about reintroducing paper textbooks. Class size. Pressure on UK state schools is now such that the numbers of students in class is rising, not falling. The inability to cover all bases means that, using traditional methods, it is difficult for the very best qualified teachers to do more than work on the brightest and the most troubled, because these are the noisiest and the most problematical. In the middle of a class of 35 an average pupil can sleep for five years, unchallenged and under-extended. The textbook is the proven route to making this happen.
So what to do? I was delighted to see both the British Equipment Supplies Association and the Publishers Association come out against the Oates paper. They are rightly afraid of any diminution of the traditional right of teachers in the UK to have unfettered freedom of choice in the selection of materials that they use to secure the outcomes that they were employed to achieve. The Oates paper is fragile. It generalises from science and maths to the whole curriculum. Its prejudice against screen-based learning as anything but a support mechanism is palpable. The publishing community is right to condemn it, but urgently needs to go beyond it by abolishing some of its own Fogyism. Let’s make a bonfire of blended learning and all those other halfway houses where we have sought to slowly introduce change at a pace that we think teachers (or ourselves?) can manage. Now is the time for full blooded screen based personalised learning. We have to teach individuals, not classes. The teaching role, as mentor and organized, is vital, but learners must learn at their own speed.we are not educating people for a world of print anymore. We have to raise a generation of collaborative, problem solving screen-based workers capable, as change grows more rapid, of continuous and self-learning. Mr Oates, the Minister, the trade bodies and everyone else should really be asking where the partnerships are between Britain’s great publishers, world-leading software players, educational data analytics specialists, educational institutions and high quality teachers who are going to sort this out. At the moment we see a competition of domestic minnows each trying to live in a version of their own past. We are in danger of letting down a generation of learners.keep looking »