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 ( 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.

In a land where one cannot move for Royal baby hysteria, I seem to have found myself reading a great many “Death of the Textbook” stories in the past week. A good series from the Economist on the inexorable rise of educational technologies (29 June 2013), a weak and woolly piece from Reuters, and an endless supply of “MOOCs are good for you” announcements. As a textbook publisher and author (1967- 1979) I admit to a nostalgia for a market even then enthralled with the lore of its own heritage. In a swoop on Royal branding that would never be tolerated today, I have before me, as I write this, copies of the Nelson New Royal Primers and the Nelson Royal Readers, published by Thomas Nelson and Sons in Edinburgh, and carrying, without any authority that I can detect, the Royal coat of arms. These books were published to catch the popular enthusiasm derived from the 1870 Education Act. I was still, incredibly enough, reprinting them in the 1960s. I doubt that the new-born Prince of the House of Windsor will be brought up upon them, though they do describe a world closer to his than ours. As his father says to little Willie in Royal Readers 3 “I want you, my boy, to do your duty in the station, whatever it may be, to which it will please God to call you , and not to set your heart on any mere earthly success…”.

Now the longevity of the textbook – an invention really of the 1840s unless you see it as a lineal descendant of the chapbook – is seriously called into question. Reuters quote surveys that indicate student conservatism around change, and indicate that the real pressure is pricing ( Other surveys seem to show a real fear of buying into the digital and then not having access to downloads after upgrading devices (sounds like a case for the Personal Cloud Library!). All seem agreed that print pricing has lost touch with student buying power, even in learning environments in Europe where the textbook is more peripheral to the whole learning experience. But particularly striking was a survey conducted for BISG by Bowker (Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education Vol 3, Part 2) ( Here we learn that in the last two years students who admit to downloading course content from unauthorized websites has risen from 20% of students interviewed to 34%, and that those who admitted scanning or photocopying textbook materials rose from 21% to 31%. Two years, and these are only those who admit to this allegedly victimless crime. In another two years we shall be beyond 50% on both counts. And, despite valiant efforts like CourseSmart, few people seem to see this as a slow motion car crash. We will not fix the textbook, in print or digitally, so where do we go now?

Textbook publishers have been politely snooty about teaching resource exchange sites for years. Even when announced that a teacher member had earned a million dollars from lesson plan sales this was regarded as a strictly limited application, and certainly confined to k-12. When Nelson’s Royal Readers were youngsters so was the Times Educational Supplement, and in its re-incarnation as TES Connect ( is showing every sign of providing the transformative power which will enable it to succeed while textbook publishers, migrating digitally, fail. The launch of TES Australia this week comes hard on the development of TES India, and the launch in the US of with the American Federation of Teachers. The service based from the UK has 2.5m registered users and claims to connect 52 m teachers from over 200 countries downloading 3.6 m resources a week from a store of material that now tops 636 thousand. Last month TPG bought this property from Charterhouse for £400m ($600m). Reflect that McGraw Hill sold this year to Apollo for $2.4 billion. Add in the fact that the last net profit figure anyone ever saw on TSL, the parent of TES Connect, was £45m, and you have a picture of the way in which textbook assets are being depreciated. Is TSL worth 25% of McGraw Hill Education? Almost certainly not, but at least TPG have an asset that they can exit to a distressed ex-textbook publisher in due course (though not Pearson, who have effectively made their own exit through diversification.

So why are there no real community networks in higher education? There seem to be a hundred reasons, but the one that interests me is the MOOC argument. Perhaps indeed Coursera will turn into the community resource, but at present the course competition is what drives the market. I note this week that I can now do a Masters in Computer Science from Georgia Tech for $6600, with all learning materials attached. The way for publishers to survive in this market is surely to move beyond personalized publishing (light adaptation of courseware for particular teachers or institutions) towards making all of their material available as downloadable learning objects, for inclusion in MOOCs and elsewhere. And concentrating on areas where they have subject/author brand strengths to build MOOC inclusive communities there. But nobody wants to do this for fear of disembowelling the existing business model. In fact, come to think of it, its only when we are truly desperate, like TES when its recruitment advertising markets fell over in the recession, that we have the courage to stop “migrating” and start “transforming”.

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