Exams should have closer ties to textbooks

18 April 2012

International evidence proves high quality textbooks can improve the performance of an education system but only if the right relationship between textbooks and learning can be secured, says education expert Tim Oates at a Cambridge Assessment seminar today (18 April 2012). Replying, teachers' union leader Mary Bousted fundamentally disagreed.

"International studies make clear that introducing policy which breaks the link between textbooks and exams is simply contrary to what is happening in systems which have radically improved their performance," explained Mr Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at the organisation – the department of the University which operates and manages its three exam boards.

Speaking at a Cambridge Assessment Network seminar ‘Just how closely should textbooks link to public examinations?’, Tim called for a tightening of the linkage between textbooks and the aims and content of the curriculum and qualifications, rather than artificially separating them. He also raised the question of what sort of linkage should we encourage.

The positioning of textbooks in overall educational policy is a critical part of system management in Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, and Alberta, amongst others. Tim gave examples of lessons that could be learned from the high quality resources that are ‘closely coupled’ to the curriculum and to assessments in Singapore and Hong Kong.

However, Tim warned that any commercial restriction on the development of textbooks should be approached with caution. He also suggested the use of a ‘kite-mark’ would be far more effective in ensuring that poor quality materials (including internet-based materials) are not used, and are given short shrift by education professionals.

Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), in response to Tim’s presentation, said: "There is a real danger that our education system will become even more obsessed by exam results for their own sake. Close alignment of text books and tests might underpin exam performance, but it would also diminish creativity and innovation in teaching. There is every danger that closer linkage of text books and exams would drive a further wedge between the real pupil engagement and learning which should go on in schools, resulting in even more teaching being driven by test performance and test results. ATL believes that this approach will not raise, but depress educational standards."

While the relationship is a focus of deliberate and stable policy in other nations, it is clear the debate here continues to rage.

The Commons Education Committee’s inquiry and recommendations on the administration of examinations for 15 to 19 year olds in England, including the role and relationship of textbooks, is expected to be published late May/early June.