How can textbooks help raise attainment and reduce inequalities?


Read the government’s transcript of Nick Gibb’s speech at the summit here.

Textbooks took front and centre stage at the International Textbook summit hosted at the Royal Society by the Department for Education and Cambridge Assessment. Speakers and delegates from around the world gathered to share best practice, debate the importance of textbooks, how we manage digital, and how we move on from tried-and-tested research about textbooks and what constitutes quality to more and better use of them in the classroom. The purpose of the conference was for Minister Gibb to set up an alternative vision to the OECD 2030 project; a focus on knowledge and textbooks and not 21st-century skills and to win international support as a leading light on raising standards.

Minister of State for School Standards Nick Gibb opened the summit championing the role of textbooks in reducing teacher workload and improving learning outcomes and recognising the existence of an anti-textbook ethos in England. He referred to the new Curriculum Fund, a DFE pot of £7.7 million which will be used to support the development of and use of “high quality” curriculum resources which we can expect to hear more about over the course of the summer. He also referenced an Early Career Framework that will endorse the use of quality textbooks as part of a teaching toolkit. Minister Gibb referred to the recent report published by John Blake of the Policy Exchange on the need for a coherent curriculum programme and resources and a desired aim to “put textbooks back at the heart of the classroom”, as well as the Frontier Economics report commissioned by the PA which demonstrated that textbooks only need to save teachers 4-minutes a day in order to pay for themselves. He cited a further source that stated they save teachers 12-minutes a day.

One speaker latterly noted that the single biggest threat to coherence is teachers producing their own materials, challenged later in the day by other speakers who were engaged in teacher-developed materials. This poses a challenge for both us, and the government as to who is best placed to develop high-quality materials, and how this then plays out with the Curriculum Fund in particular.

Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment gave the first presentation and clearly articulated the message that publishers are keen for teachers and policy-makers to fully understand that textbooks are much more than ‘just a book’. An important theme of the day was the role that publishers play in providing teacher support both in the implementation of a textbook programme and with ongoing wrap-around service. Both Tim and talks from Singapore and China demonstrated that textbooks are not only developed over time with huge investment in evidence-based pedagogical approaches embedded in their curriculum design and trials but also in ongoing developments and improvements. A point was made that importantly publishers need to be paid for their resources, including in some countries free teaching materials, in order that they can invest in the next iteration of high-quality materials. Oates noted that ‘the focus on textbook quality was not an anti-digital position’ and there was ongoing discussion around the value of blended. However, he also stated ‘unless we understand the quality of textbooks, we risk being swamped by low-grade digital resources’.

What resonated among the audience was a united view of a definition of a textbook, how textbooks should be used, and why in fact textbooks were needed at all. The international speakers in the room share their country experiences, many of which had an element of state approval and dedicated state funding for books; the latter point leaving the domestic audience green with envy and the former point causing angst that this might be seen as ‘best practice’ and picked up by our own policymakers. Common ground was also found on the need for a multi-stakeholder engagement in developing textbooks, with the government, publishers, researchers and teachers all working together, and the point was made that appropriate lead time was needed between a curriculum change and the development of new resources to ensure high quality could be assured.

The need for equality as the title of the summit suggests is paramount to raising standards. Some countries such as Mexico were achieving this with state-funded textbooks for every child and in Singapore the country is fully wired up ensuring all schools are digitally connected. Smaller countries such as Iceland were on track to achieving this but other countries, the UK included, are woefully behind. One speaker alluded to the societal developments many countries are now faced with including migration, violence, conflict and extremism, all seen as barriers to equal access, aside from funding and infrastructure challenges.

Maths in Singapore and Shanghai featured heavily throughout the day with speakers from both countries talking to their development of Mastery for Maths programmes. The speakers made it clear that textbooks sat at the heart of the programmes, and their success, and are major contributors to the high performance that has resulted from this style of teaching. A key feature in Shanghai was the fact that all teachers use the same textbook. Debbie Morgan also spoke from NCETM, validating textbooks but also reinforcing the value of teachers’ subject knowledge, personal development and capacity to draw critically from a textbook to support the essence of a lesson.

The summit has been lauded a success by attendees who felt it exceeded expectations and really did showcase experts from around the world in the field of policy, textbook development and implementation. Minister Gibb closed the proceedings by asking delegates to keep a close eye on the UK over the next 2-years as we should see some significant improvements to the education system, flagging his determination to stick to the traditional path. His commitment to textbooks is laudable but, as we heard throughout the day, the ecosystem must work together and we need schools and teachers to recognise the value that textbooks bring. This mountain is a big one to climb given the anti-textbook ethos we face in this country and the drive to encourage Multi Academy Trusts and other institutions to create their own, perhaps begging further questions around quality and coherence—but perhaps we are making some small steps.