New research shows why textbooks count

20 November 2014

England needs to restore the primacy of ‘real’ textbooks in order to reach international standards of education, Cambridge Assessment’s Group Director of Assessment Research and Development has said. 

In a paper published to coincide with a conference held by the Publishers Association, and backed by Minister of State for School Reform Nick Gibb MP, Tim Oates warns that England has been overtaken by the highest-performing education systems, partly because they value textbooks so highly.

Tim, who chaired the 2010 National Curriculum review, shows that in England only four per cent of teachers claim to use science textbooks as the basis for their teaching, compared to 68 per cent in Singapore and 94 per cent in Finland. In the latest PISA international league tables, Singapore was ranked third and Finland fifth for science. The UK was in 21st place. 

In Why Textbooks Count, which looks at the best systems around the world, Tim explains that classroom teachers are not to blame for the problem. Instead he highlights an opposition to textbooks among many theory-based educationalists, as well as a failure of the market in England. He says textbooks have been largely abandoned in favour of the use of ‘worksheets’ and “myopic” exam-based books, in stark contrast to places such as Singapore, Finland and Shanghai, where high-quality textbooks are a key part of the classroom, supporting learners and teachers alike.

Summing up the situation, he says: “We may not have been conscious of the movement in England away from the wide use of high quality textbooks, but it has happened. We’ve failed to notice the emergence, in other nations, of extremely well-theorised, well-designed, and carefully implemented textbooks.”

He concludes by calling for “self-searching criticism of the status-quo in England” and for a “concerted effort by publishers, the state, researchers and educationalists” to align more with emerging international standards of excellence on textbooks.

In a foreword, the Minister says he hopes the paper will “lead to the renaissance of intellectually demanding and knowledge-rich textbooks in England’s schools”. Mr Gibb is speaking on the matter at the Publishers Association conference today.

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