Schoolzone blog: Who on Earth uses textbooks nowadays?

Who on Earth uses textbooks nowadays?


18 Nov 2015

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Well actually, lots of people.

At one time, when we delivered training on how to do market research in schools, we used to demonstrate the need for understanding the market before framing the questions, with an example about textbooks. It went something like this: don’t ask teachers whether they use textbooks, because they’ll say “no”; instead, ask them what they like about textbooks and you’ll find they can talk all day about it, meaning “yes”.

But times have changed because:

  1. teachers have lost some of the skills of textbook choice, partly as a result of the popularity of the endorsed textbook and partly because textbook use has been frowned upon in recent years
  2. as we found out in a recent survey of almost 2,000 teachers of reformed GCSE and A-level subjects, nowadays they are much more likely than previously to answer “yes” in the first place.

When we did ask them just that question, we got a surprising response: the demand for textbooks is increasing, with two thirds of teachers wanting new textbooks to support the introduction of the new specs. And it’s printed textbooks they want really – just 4% were only interested in digital textbooks.

The biggest change was among English teachers – traditionally those using textbooks least, but increasingly feeling the pressure to deliver on GCSE exam results and more uncertain than ever about the nature of the assessments in the new exams. Plus, they have the double whammy of new GCSEs and A-levels at the same time, unlike other subjects.

But it’s not just English teachers – we also interviewed 80 phase 1 (ie those being taught from September 2015) subject teachers, to ask them about whether and why they use textbooks. This year we  found that they are noticeably happier to talk about using them in class – the stigma is definitely fading. Teachers no longer think that Ofsted will give them low ratings if textbooks are used during lesson observations and they are happy to say that textbooks are a good way to help develop skills.

We also asked, in the survey, whether the 2012 Select Committee Enquiry into textbook approval had affected teachers’ views of whether they wanted textbooks to be endorsed by their chosen awarding body. We found that far from losing faith in the approval process, teachers currently want them more than ever: 82% of teachers prefer their textbooks to be approved or endorsed by their AB.

However, they prefer to retain choice about which textbook they should choose, not to have just one textbook approved by their AB. We also wondered whether approving too many would devalue the process, but it would seem not – teachers see choice and flexibility as far more important than any perception it may give them of their awarding body: pragmatic lot.

Of course, textbooks are always in demand when new specs are launched because teachers need reassurance about what depth they should teach to and what style exam questions will take, but there’s also a very strong compounding factor in 2015 and that’s the reforms to assessment and accountability. We asked about this in some depth, via focus groups with heads of maths and senior leaders this term too: it’s all a horrible mess!

New accountability measures put pressure on teachers to do better – but in a different way – at GCSE; new GCSEs make it impossible at present to know how well students will do; lack of NC levels means that schools can’t check progress and progress is the bedrock of new accountability measures. A vicious cycle / Catch 22 scenario! Currently this is just for English and maths at GCSE, but the same will apply for phase 2 subjects next year.

So, small wonder that schools, despite wanting textbooks, haven’t bought them in huge numbers: over a quarter (27%) are waiting until they see the new exams before they settle on which spec to follow from 2017 and they won’t buy textbooks for a spec until they’re settled on it.

Meanwhile, back to the question of print vs digital textbooks. The demand for print still dominates, though teachers also like to have access to digital texts – largely because, like most people, they want digital versions of everything. Digital is more accessible and portable and easier to project when using alongside printed textbooks in class. But digital is a very long way away from taking over as the default textbook format. In our secondary Talking Heads discussion earlier this month, several schools told us that they’d tried tablet devices (which seem the perfect way to facilitate the move to digital) and that they’re giving up on them. They all had, or wanted, static IT budgets too.

That’s not to say that digital is dead, of course: schools aren’t trashing their computers and banning mobile phones (at least not all of them), but for publishers – who often ask us to find out – the tipping point between print and digital isn’t going to be anytime soon.

So, what’s the future for textbooks then? Nick Gibb and Tim Oates are trying to improve the quality of textbooks and the Publishers Association have published guidance on what makes a good textbook. Each set outlines the features one would expect to see in high quality resources for eight different subject areas.

These aren’t any kind of buying guide for schools, but they’re on the way to being the basis of something that could help teachers make better decisions – sorry if that sounds vague, but we’d really like to hear your thoughts about them.

More about this in forthcoming posts.



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