Schoolzone blog: Textbooks thoughts from PA/BESA conference

Textbook thoughts from PA/BESA conference


17 Nov 2015

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It's always pleasing to find oneself in good company, as I was today at the PA/BESA annual conference. Good company on two counts:1) lots of clients, some old, some new, some who don’t know they’re going to be clients yet… 2) the PA and BESA themselves. The first group are good company because we always have lots to talk about, the second because at this conference we were roughly on the same wavelength.

That’s to say we, the PA and BESA are all very interested in textbooks and assessment at the moment. It’s not surprising I suppose, given that new GCSE and A-level courses mean new textbooks are needed (two thirds of teachers tell us that) and since the changes to assessment and accountability represent the biggest shakeup to education in schools since the national curriculum.

We’ve undertaken several pieces of research recently into both these areas (see refs below) with teachers, subject leaders and school leaders, so we feel we have a pretty good understand of what’s going on and the way things are headed. Better, perhaps than some of the speakers at the conference, and there are some observations I’d like to make about some of the issues covered.


AlphaPlus consultancy told us that they had produced A Literature Review on Textbook Use and Links to Educational Standards - and found no correlation between use of textbooks and student performance. Not surprising, given the huge range of factors that impact on educational performance – textbooks constitute only a tiny element of that. As the report says, “the research evidence about textbook use does not answer the key questions about whether their use is linked to high educational outcomes and, if they do provide effective support, what are the features of them which are important”.

This is a good piece of research, despite the lack of any satisfying conclusion, but during the author’s presentation, one of the conclusions given was that “teachers developing their own resources is not a good use of time” – a sentiment that was echoed later by Neil McLean, who also questioned the quality of teachers' resources, as did others.

OK, this gets my dander up: obviously teachers can’t produce resources of the same quality as publishers. That’s not why they make them and neither is it a waste of time, even if the resources aren’t, objectively, high quality. Teachers widely make their own resources (our own research puts this above 70%) because then the resources are flexible and better suited to their own needs. But even that’s not the point when it comes to time wasting. Here’s what teachers have told us is important:

Teachers make their own resources because it engages them with the content and skills being developed in the lesson – it helps them understand these better; it gives them confidence in these things and it ensures that when the lesson is being delivered, the teacher knows what’s what. These preparations all require time, so it’s not a waste of time to do them.

Every time we ask teachers where they go first to find resources, it’s the TES (or it was – it’s starting to become a bit too full), because there they find the inspiration to create their own resources: they tend not to just download and use them: they always need some reworking to suit teachers’ own needs, but the reworking is part of the planning. It doesn’t, as one speaker suggested, get in the way of teachers spending more time speaking to children, for example.

Anyway, back to textbooks – Nick Gibb was adamant that there is an “anti-textbook ethos” in schools and that we need to “break the cycle” (it must have been an implied cycle, unless I just missed the explanation) and this certainly has been the case, but this is changing. I remember my brother once saying (during a religious phase) that there are no atheists at 20,000 feet – well, to some extent this is a metaphor for textbooks in times of sudden, extensive curriculum and assessment change. But there’s more too it than that – the culture is shifting already; possibly because of Mr Gibb's intervention at last year’s conference.

Mr Gibb also mentioned a recent report by the Center for American Progress which had stated that textbooks are 40x more cost effective than some other resources. The only recent report we could find, which might be the one he refers to is The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform. This report’s recommendations include “the authors believe that more needs to be done in the curriculum space, particularly around developing demonstratively effective textbooks,” but there no mention of Mr Gibb’s reference, though there is some extremely dubious evidence which could be used (if you trusted it) on pages 14 – 18.

After textbooks, Mr Gibb went on to express concern over the fact that KS3 is becoming somewhat ghostly in appearance (my words, not his) as schools are focusing more strongly on GCSE – small wonder given the current climate of accountability – and that schools are letting KS3 fade away. He’s not suggesting any further changes to the NC, but doing some “work to demonstrate good practice in KS3” – presumably to encourage schools to make sure that children are well prepared for GCSE. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, the two year KS3 has caused problems as children don’t pick up the love of a subject in KS3 if it’s too rushed and if they start GCSE without either an interest or grasp of the basics, they won’t do well.

The removal of KS3 SATs is partly to blame for the loss of KS3’s character: one delegate asked Mr Gibb if there would be a return to SATs, to which Mr Gibb's reply was, “ask the unions what they’d think of that” (his words, not mine).

By the way, Mr Gibb, if you’d really been a Simpsons fan you’d know that Lisa’s teacher’s name is pronounced krəˈbɑːpəl not kræbˈæpəl.


I was going to going on about this, too, but I see that I’ve already written 1,000 words on this conference, so I’ll leave thoughts on assessment for another day.



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