Blog: Sour milk and shoddy textbooks - Simon Lebus

Blog: Sour milk and shoddy textbooks - Simon Lebus

Tuesday 10th March 2015

I have just received a marketing email from a company called the Milk Factory, drawing attention to the launch of the new School Food Standards and their requirement that Primary Schools make lower fat milk available to their pupils at least once a day. They suggest that the best way to achieve this is for it to be offered at mid-morning break.

It is strange to see this making a reappearance. Compulsory milk in schools was originally introduced in 1946 by the Free Milk Act, which was passed by the then Labour Government in response to studies showing a link between malnutrition and educational under-achievement, and which provided that all children under 18 should receive a third of a pint daily at no cost.

The provision remained in force until 1971 when Margaret Thatcher, who was at the time Secretary of State for Education, abolished it for children over the age of seven. The cost saving was around £9m – more, it is said, than was being spent on books (and that was in pre-photocopier days) – and it led to her acquiring the unfortunate soubriquet ‘Milk Snatcher’, which remained with her for the rest of her political career.

I am old enough to have been a beneficiary of the original policy and still remember with a shudder of disgust the sight of the little bottles lined up on the trolley at break, often having stood there since their delivery in the early morning, with a thick crust of, in the summer, very often semi-rancid cream at the top (this was in the days before skimmed milk). Strict sanctions were required to ensure that the milk was all drunk rather than thrown away, and I am sure I was not alone among my contemporaries in my delight at Mrs. Thatcher’s removal of this disgusting infliction, which had long outlived the problem of widespread malnutrition it was designed to address.

However, the issue had great totemic significance, with the Labour-controlled Greater London Education Authority mounting a campaign of subversion and a Council in Wales getting round the ban by adding cocoa and calling it hot chocolate.

Another feature of the 1970’s educational scene, which has a similarly anachronistic feel to it now, was the beginning of a reaction against the use of textbooks. In his research on the use of textbooks in high-performing international jurisdictions, Tim Oates refers to William Marsden’s 2001 book on the school textbook, and its identification of an “anti-textbook ethos” with its location in teacher training and educational research communities.

This originated partly in the high value placed on self-expression and self-realisation that was such a feature of the counter-culture of the Sixties and Seventies and which identified the structured approach of traditional textbooks as a form of ideological repression.

Perhaps this explains a piece in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago about Nick Gibb’s speech to publishers last November in which the Minister criticised the standards of English school textbooks, comparing them unfavourably with Singaporean and Shanghai textbooks which are characterised by their carefully and comprehensively structured coverage of the syllabus and the way in which they are designed to be used as a central element in how the subject is taught.

The article states that Gibb gave the impression of ’advocating that capitalist publishers of textbooks should sometimes produce materials that consumers (in this case schools) don’t want’. The article also suggests the establishment of a commission of maths teachers, mathematicians and publishers to investigate whether there really is something to be learned from the Singaporean and Shanghai textbooks referred to.

However, the point here is that the Minister’s argument in this case was based on already conducted and meticulous research which explicitly identified various elements of successful educational practice, including good quality textbooks, in high- performing international jurisdictions.

It is a shame not to see the use of research evidence as a basis for policy-making being applauded in those instances when it happens, especially when its application – in this case as a result of the withdrawal of poor quality textbooks – is likely to be just as liberating for those on the receiving end of it as the withdrawal of free school milk was for me 44 years ago!

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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