Four reasons why textbooks can improve our schools

There is a pernicious dogma in our schools, largely thanks to the 2005 Steer Report and poorly trained Ofsted inspectors, that lessons should contain ‘jazzy’ and ‘whizzy’ exercises designed to engage students in their learning. A failure to do so, the conventional wisdom suggests, will inevitably lead to poor behaviour amongst pupils (and this is entirely your fault as a teacher). Silent written work is out, whilst noisy group work is in. (Somewhat paradoxically, there is also a mantra that the time spent on planning a lesson should not be longer than the length of the lesson itself – I wonder how many teachers abide by this.)

In response to this desire for the perfect ‘fun’ lesson, school CPD sessions often revolve around ‘sharing resources’, with departmental meetings and inter-school links set up to facilitate this. Log into and there are pages and pages of lesson resources that teachers, across all subjects and key-stages, have uploaded. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taken part in a ‘USB dump’ where I drop my schemes of work onto somebody else’s computer, and vice-versa. Teachers then spend many an hour scouring these resources for snippets that they can use in their lessons (though often the activities or content don’t quite fit with their specific lesson objectives).

Having previously been indoctrinated by this mantra (and Teach First is guilty here) I’ve come to believe that this focus on lesson activities is all a massive waste of time. We have sacrificed scholarship amongst our pupils in favour of card-sort induced submission. This is draining our teachers and depriving our children.

So what is the alternative? High-quality textbooks.

The merits of textbooks are extensively researched and outlined in the 2014 paper ‘Why textbooks count’ by Tim Oates, Group director of assessment research and development for Cambridge Assessment. Other high-performing education systems such as Singapore and Finland use textbooks extensively in the classroom. Despite the merits of textbooks, however, there is a culture in our schools which vehemently opposes their use. As Nick Gibb MP, Minister for Schools, stated in November 2014:

“Ideological hostility to the use of textbooks, particularly in primary schools, developed in the 1970s. Their replacement with work sheets and hundreds of thousands of bespoke written lesson plans has added to teacher workload, detracted from coherence and impacted on standards.”

This lack of demand has had a detrimental impact on both the quantity and quality of textbooks on offer. As Oates outlines:

“Our analysis of the market in England suggests that there is chronic market failure. In KS4, teachers have been conditioned by performance tables into highly instrumental approaches to learning, oriented towards obtaining specific examination grades.”

Taking my own subject, Government & Politics, as an example, there are three main textbooks available at AS Level. All three are of a fairly high quality in terms of content (Andrew Heywood’s being my favourite) however they are severely limited in terms of advising teachers on how best to utilise this content. Unlike effective Maths textbooks which might explain how to tackle a problem followed by a large number of practice questions and exercises in an attempt to work towards mastery of the subject, none of the textbooks on offer in my subject – and indeed, across most arts and humanities subjects – attempt to provide an effective learning schema. A lack of chronology in History and Philosophy & Religion textbooks is also evident. As such, the textbook is often treated as a reference book rather than an extensive source of knowledge.

Again, taking my own subject as an example, market failure at A Level is highlighted by the fact there is a solitary UK published textbook on US Politics. Whilst areas of this textbook are good, it is far too limited to stretch pupils of all abilities. For instance, when covering the Supreme Court topic, there is no mention of the recent phenomenon of conservative activism, yet the examination requires them to have a substantial understanding of this. To makeup for this shortfall in quality, I have scoured university level textbooks on Government & Politics, including several from the US, and compiled my own alternative ‘workbooks’. This, as you can imagine, is incredibly time consuming and almost definitely breaches copyright laws (please don’t report me!).

The Minister for Schools has begun to tackle this lack of quality and quantity of textbooks by trialling English adaptations of Singaporean mathematics textbooks in 35 primary maths hubs established by the DfE, as well as cajoling publishers into producing higher quality textbooks for other key-stages. Despite this, there is much progress to be made and we won’t see the fundamental shift towards using textbooks until headteachers and classroom teachers are convinced of the benefits of doing so, thus creating a greater demand for them. As such, I shall now outline what I see as the four clear benefits to schools, teachers and pupils for using high-quality textbooks:

1) It allows for better teaching 

Most teachers went into teaching to teach, not to spend hours cutting up card sorts or printing activities out on different bits of coloured paper. The truth is, and this might be controversial to some, having an undergraduate degree in a subject does not make you an expert in that field, so why do teachers spend so much time producing academic materials? Let academics and advanced teachers focus on creating high quality materials and stretching lesson activities – codified in a single, authoritative textbook – and let teachers focus on their subject knowledge and honing their teaching craft. High-quality textbooks demand a more knowledgeable workforce whilst simultaneously freeing teachers up to meet this objective. Teachers don’t need more planning and preparation (PP) time; they need to plan and prepare less.

2) It is much more rigorous 

In his seminal paper, Oates (2014) identified that the highest quality materials manifest a series of vital features:

  • underpinning by well-grounded learning theory and theory regarding subject-specific content
  • clear delineation of content – a precise focus on key concepts and knowledge coherent learning progressions within the subject
  • stimulation and support of learner reflection
  • varied application of concepts and principles – ‘expansive application’
  • control of surface and structural features of texts to ensure consistency with underpinning learning theory

As Oates states:

“High quality textbooks are not antithetical to high quality pedagogy – they are supportive of sensitive and effective approaches to high attainment, high equity and high enjoyment of learning.” (Oates 2014)

The focus on context as well as key terms and concepts helps to avoid a sometimes dramatic dumbing down of complex topics. See below for an example of an activity I found on related to political parties in the UK:


Enough said.

3) It is much more efficient 

It is crazy that teachers of the same subject, teaching the same topics, spend hours and hours every week, planning ‘engaging’ and ‘stretching’ lessons in siloed classrooms and staffrooms. This is an incredibly inefficient use of resources by the State and by schools, and embodies an economic outlook that would not be out of place in pre-industrial Britain. The division of labour –  popularised by the economist Adam Smith – was the great innovation responsible for catapulting Britain to global economic supremacy, yet our schools are missing a trick by expecting our teachers to be ‘all rounders’. The use of common schemes of work and teaching materials is already commonplace in academy chains and there is no shame in this.

4) It saves schools money 

Many schools spend tens of thousands of pounds per year on different types of paper, laminating and photocopying (and the related costs of servicing photocopiers when they inevitably break down). For instance, my Teach First placement school printed an incredible 1.2 million sheets of paper in 2012 (see this video they produced for their 2013 Waste Week, including a short cameo from yours truly). There is incredible waste in the system; over-printing or unused worksheets starves schools of vital pennies. The environmental impact is clear too.

Of course, there are some subjects where this might be more difficult, however, I believe that the shift towards using high-quality textbooks in classrooms can’t come soon enough. It would be cheaper for schools, more rigorous for pupils and would free up teachers to focus on their teaching. Who can argue with that?


3 thoughts on “Four reasons why textbooks can improve our schools

  1. Yep. Textbooks saved my education. I loved my secondary maths book written by that head of Rugby school (so far away in England). He knew what he was doing and he knew how to explain it.


  2. The problem in my subject, MFL, is that all the text books produced in the UK are devoid of decent texts of any reasonable length – glossy pictures are the norm. Whole chapters are given over to relatively simple topics such as buying food and drink and any tenses other than the present are deemed to be too difficult for Book 1, whichever course you look at. I can’t help but compare them to the textbooks I used in Germany for teaching English – there were some pictures, certainly, but lots of meaty texts for teachers to exploit, followed by challenging grammar exercises. Moreover, the past tense was introduced in Chapter 3 of Book 1! No wonder their pupils are so much more advanced. Perhaps I should produce my own book….!

    Liked by 1 person

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