How long will it take Damian Hinds, the new education secretary, to understand his portfolio and to learn the ropes? A sad truth about education ministers over the past few decades is that they are ‘slower learners’. It was thirty years or more, for example, before the penny finally dropped that phonics are the key to the teaching of reading. It has taken as long to work out that the GCSE exam lacks the academic rigour of O-levels.
Mr Hinds is about to discover his new department’s latest ‘slow learner’s’ breakthrough. It is its recognition that textbooks are important. The schools minister, Nick Gibb, recently told the Policy Exchange think-tank that the ‘long-term movement away from textbooks is something that might be about to go into reverse’. He noted that only 10 per cent of teachers in England use a textbook as a basis for their teaching as opposed to 70 per cent in Singapore. By the age of 15, according to the OECD, Singaporean pupils are three years ahead in terms of attainment.
Small wonder, then, that the DfE has, finally, become willing to learn some lessons from the Asia-Pacific. A few years ago it set up a programme for maths teachers from China to train teachers here in England how to teach the subject. Once upon a time we used to despatch missionaries to China to teach the locals about Christianity. The process has now gone into reverse with Chinese missionaries landing on our shores to teach us about mathematics.
Just as we once sent books to China to teach them about Christianity so the Chinese are now sending us textbooks to show us how to teach maths. The state-run China Daily newspaper seemed slightly perplexed. It quoted Collins Learning, the UK publisher of the Chinese textbooks, as saying:
‘To my knowledge this has never happened in history before – that textbooks created for students in China will be translated exactly as they have been developed, and sold for use in British schools.’
Singaporean maths textbooks are also attracting custom from some English schools. For those who can afford it, the after-school and privately run Japanese Kumon clubs apply a similar practice and repetition textbook method. Anything but the British textbook-free ‘death by a thousand worksheets’ approach is sought by parents and pupils.
Nick Gibb probably underestimates the extent to which the use of textbooks has declined in our schools and the damage this has caused. His support for their restoration is, nevertheless, to be applauded. He seems reluctant, however, to go beyond the role of a bystander. He comments on the action of our unfolding educational tragedy as though he is the chorus in an ancient Greek drama.
He told Policy Exchange that the ‘teacher-led move back to textbooks will be integral to ensuring that the national curriculum is as effective as we’d hoped’. He is right, of course, but simply hoping that the decline in textbooks ‘might be about to go into reverse’ is not enough. It is the triumph of hope over experience. Too many in the educational establishment are not onside, Nick!
A few months ago the Tes, mouthpiece of the Blob, referenced the minister’s hope for the revival of textbooks:
‘But a Tes-YouGov survey reveals teachers are heading in the opposite direction. One in 10 teachers say they use textbooks in more than half of their lessons – a drop from 13 per cent three years ago. And just 8 per cent of those surveyed think they will be using textbooks in most or all of their lessons by 2020.’
For years children have been paying a high price for the Government’s inability to grasp what is going on in classrooms. For too long the Blob has bullied ministers into submission when they have dared to contest failed educational orthodoxies. Around the world, textbooks underpin the most successful school systems. This may be an unorthodox heresy to our Blob, but the new education secretary should do whatever is necessary to ensure that our children have the same advantage.