Liz Truss’s Textbook Speech

December 2, 2013

Education minister Liz Truss made a speech today which included the following defence of textbooks:

I want to start, though, with a defence of the textbook. Not just because I’m currying favour with publishers. Nor because I’m nostalgic about my dog-eared copy of ‘Tricolore’. But because the humble textbook represents something quite powerful. A textbook is a map, a guide. It’s a single thing you can pick, that starts off with basics and builds more and more on top, giving you what you need to know. That’s a beautiful idea – knowledge and understanding, there for the taking.

And think about how we use the word ‘textbook’. Call something textbook and you’re saying it’s the right way to do something. A textbook cricket shot. A textbook driving manoeuvre. One of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions is ‘exemplary; accurate’ or ‘instructively typical’. There’s an entire social meaning around the word ‘textbook’.

So it’s odd that almost uniquely in the developed world, in England, textbooks have fallen out of fashion. Buried deep in the 2011 TIMSS study – an international comparison of maths and science teaching – is an analysis of use of materials. Seventy-five per cent of teachers in countries studied use textbooks as the basis of instruction for 10-year-olds [fourth grade in TIMSS]. In Germany, it’s 86%. Poland – 78%. Sweden – 89%. Korea – 99%. In England – it’s 10%. We are an outlier. And in science, across the world, on average 74% of teachers use textbooks as the basis of instruction for 14-year-olds [eighth grade]. In Korea, it’s 88%. Hong Kong – 87%. Malaysia – 83%. Chinese Taipei – 92%. In England – it’s 8%.

Why is this? Why are textbooks unloved in England? I think it’s partly progressive education philosophy – exemplified by the Plowden report of 1967 – with its concept of child centred learning, and idea there’s no best way to teach.

I am sympathetic to this, but it misses the reality on the ground. The reason we are scared to use textbooks might relate to progressive ideology, but owes more to how it is enforced than its intellectual influence. In particular, like most things in education it comes down to the actions of OFSTED. I’ve tried using a textbook exercise in front of an OFSTED inspector, they do not like it. In their pro-groupwork phase working from a textbook would have been a mortal sin. If they have moved on from that, they now seem to want evidence that work is tailored to individual needs, so using the same textbook for a whole class seems to be right out. Mike Cameron on Twitter nailed this exactly by doing a search for the phrase “much over-reliance on textbooks” on the OFSTED website.

Here are some examples:

While teaching is mostly good there are times when it loses ‘crispness’ and clarity and tasks are not challenging enough. Despite their willingness to complete their tasks, pupils do not always achieve as much as they could do. Sometimes an over-reliance on textbooks and commercial worksheets limits pupils’ own responses.

St David’s Primary School (Ministry of Defence), July 2013

Year 11 mathematics lesson seen by inspectors, teachers use whiteboards effectively to illustrate and focus on teaching points. Conversely, in some lessons, there is too much reliance on worksheets, textbooks and uninspiring resources

Institute of Islamic Education, independent school, September 2011

Teaching in the academic subjects is not as effective as in the performing arts. This is because teachers are not adapting lessons enough to extend the understanding and skills of all pupils, especially more -able pupils. In some subjects, there is an over-reliance on textbooks.

Barbara Speake Stage School, June 2013

Almost all students have a very positive attitude to mathematics and are keen to do well. They respond best when given opportunities to discuss their mathematics and be more actively involved in lessons. This does not happen in all lessons and students report that they sometimes spend too long working from textbooks and worksheets emulating the methods and
techniques they have been shown by their teacher…

An over-reliance on textbook-based approaches sometimes results in students’ fragmented experience of the mathematics curriculum…

Too great a reliance is placed on pathways through textbook schemes to meet the needs of different groups of students.

The King David High School, Ofsted 2012–13 subject survey inspection programme: mathematics

An improvement in the teaching is teachers’ reduced reliance on textbooks and worksheets. A recently acquired textbook-based scheme of work still forms the basis of teachers’ planning but is being adapted more readily to suit pupils’ needs. The school has rightly identified that Key Stage 2 pupils would benefit from more opportunities to learn and practise skills in exciting, real-life contexts.

Holy Trinity CofE Primary School, Ofsted 2010–11 subject survey inspection programme: mathematics

Martin Fitzgerald, mathematics coordinator, is responsible for the work of the team of 12 teachers. He works closely with Derek. He emphasises that the department ‘… now works at the opposite end of the spectrum from “text-book lessons”. The danger with that approach was that pupils seemed to be making secure progress because they became adept at answering the questions, but they were seldom able to make that all-important massive jump when asked to apply their learning in real situations. An over-reliance on textbooks kills any hope of realising high expectations because it leads to pupils becoming dependent on the teacher. We knew we had to move on from that.’

OFSTED good practice report, Allenbourn Middle School, January 2012.

I could go on.

Added to this, of course, the government has also been keen to increase the power of headteachers to remove teachers they disapprove of, and, with performance-related pay, reward those they do approve of. How many headteachers are going to be rewarding teachers who rely on OFSTED unfriendly methods of teaching like using textbooks? How many would rather remove teachers who insist on using textbooks rather than entertaining the kids? The government, once more, seems keen on sabotaging its own objectives. Until they are willing to take on OFSTED they might as well refrain from expressing views about teaching. OFSTED, and not OFSTED at its best but the fear of the worst possible inspector, determines how we are meant to teach, and that isn’t through using textbooks.


  1. The key term in those Ofsted phrasings though is “over-reliance”, which essentially means that the teacher isn’t doing enough to ensure that the learning that the textbook should support is actually happening. If you could just give kids books and that was enough, we’d be redundant. The problem is that somewhere along the line people have interpreted this as meaning “do not use textbooks” rather than “do not use textbooks improperly”. Can we blame Ofsted for that?

    • This seems to be the same argument as on teacher talk. If OFSTED are going to complain there is too much of something, and never complain there is too little, then it sends a clear message that schools should do less of it. They really shouldn’t talk about quantity at all unless they are prepared to spell out what quantity is required.

      I might also draw your attention to the final quotation. That’s not about quantity, that is a flat out condemnation of textbooks in a “good practice” report.

      • I did ponder that last quote. I wonder if they are using “textbook lesson” in the sense that Truss herself mentions, of ‘pedestrian’ and also – in the over-reliance sense – of literally just going through a preformatted lesson plan, which we all know isn’t going to cut it in the real world of learning. You’re of course right that they could communicate it better.

        To me though “over-reliance” is not quantity, it *is* about quality. The part about it being “too long” is again phrased to point out WHY it is too long. So, it’s not the amount of time but the fact that it is overly repetitive when the students have already consolidated the learning. Now, that might be inaccurate in terms of what was going on in the classroom, but it’s not an inherently incorrect *statement* to make.

        • Oh for pity’s sake. Why are people so desperate to reinterpret OFSTED’s utterances so as to find a way in which what they say, no matter its likely effects, might be technically correct under some possible circumstances?

          If OFSTED go around reporting that schools are over-reliant on textbooks without specifying the correct amount of reliance then the effects are obvious. Add to this the context and the “good practice” report and it’s pretty hard to avoid that OFSTED have provided a clear deterrent to textbook use.

          • So, I think it does matter if Ofsted are technically correct, for the reason that it is what I expect of them. If we are saying they are incorrect, we need to fully explain how. Now, we may argue that the consequence of their reports is such that textbooks are being maligned. Fine. The question is: why that particular consequence given their technical accuracy? I would argue it is because they haven’t *balanced* out their reports by giving examples of when textbooks *are* well used (this also stands for the teacher talk thing). If so, then what we should be doing is asking Ofsted to give these examples.

            As I remember it, Ofsted agreed to the government back in September that they WOULD start publishing ALL the notes from outstanding lessons so we can see if these examples are there. That this hasn’t been followed up on is a problem. But a solvable one. To me, it would be the sensible drum to bang rather than a path which suggests they just hate textbooks (which they probably don’t).

          • There seems to be quite a deep rooted anti-textbook culture in many schools. On twitter it is really easy to come across disparaging comments about using textbooks as a resource and. I have neded up in a number of debates on their use. In the light of this Liz Truss’ comments made some sense to me.

  2. There are good ways to use textbooks and there are crap ways to use them; they are just tools they don’t have a life beyond themselves just as computers or feather dusters do. Liz Truss is just making political capital out of nothing – let’s all take a textbook and place it gingerly over our head shall we; then we can see all see the correct way forwards.

  3. Of course it helped when text books were genuine resources that could be used in a variety of ways. In my last few years of teaching they had become really dull and boring things. No extended reading or any other text-based activity was possible as every identically laid out double page spread covered “the essentials” of one bit of the one exam specification it was written for.
    By the time you’ve put in differentiated questions and some big pictures along with some shoehorned-in context and a box of key words, there’s no room for anything interesting. Also becomes useless for developing skill of finding things out, as everything is so clearly signposted. (Science textbooks in my case. Might be biased by being of a generation that had a copy of “Abbott – Ordinary Level Physics” to take home and had read the whole thing by autumn half term.)

  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  5. I reckon that if you half-read those OFSTED quotes whilst squinting then you might be able to interpret them as not saying anything about textbooks at all.

  6. Textbooks were the most challenging teaching I received, and liberated my learning. My Maths teachers could teach most of the class confident in the knowledge that I would be doing stuff commensurate with my ability. A nudge occasionally to do the exercises at the end of the list, or to look at something which might be interesting, or to fix something I’d skipped by accident, and I was on my way. Good textbooks opened the subject up so that it wasn’t constrained by my teachers and their plans. I didn’t realise how good I was, but my teachers allowed me to find out.

  7. I think textbooks are very valuable to students of all types.

    I think some uk schools don’t use them because kids lose or vandalise them with their parents blessing.

    I think its unfortunate that OFSTED criticise their use- how predictable that they should do so.

    Even if they were to inspect for 3 days how could they come to the conclusion staff were ‘over reliant’?

    I can’t believe teachers spend hours at a time getting kids to use them without another input or activity.

    Sounds like formulaic, lazy ‘inspecting’ to me.

    “Mmm, kids doing some quiet consolidation questions from the book? Mmm, bit quiet and dull in here… no play acting or group work… wheres my phrase list? Ah yes, “over reliance on textbooks”…. I will stick that in shall I?”

    Ironic eh?

    Bring back the textbook I say!

  8. Surely the key ‘reality on the ground’ is that text books are EXPENSIVE – if they were free, they’d be used a LOT more… no?

    • Photocopying half-thought through worksheets (or commercial ones copied without permission, etc.) isn’t cheap either.

      Perhaps the answer is to get e copies of textbooks on iPads. Then we can teach properly using the texts and the observers will be happy because the latest greatest gadget is being used?

  9. “An over-reliance on textbooks kills any hope of realising high expectations because it leads to pupils becoming dependent on the teacher.”

    Surely if anything leads to pupils becoming dependent on the teacher, it is the ABSENCE of textbooks??? If you’re a bright secondary child in a chaotic class with poor teaching, a good textbook would be your only hope. In that situation, my nephews were able to teach themselves chemistry because their parents could afford the necessary books. But we’ve seen fit to take away that opportunity from less affluent kids.

  10. I’m mystified by the implication that ‘textbook’ is any sort of standard. Over the years I’ve seen (and used) some brilliant textbooks; I’ve adapted/used selectively some which I thought were good in parts, and I’ve seen some which I couldn’t believe had made it into print (containing factual errors, for one thing) which I wouldn’t have touched with a bargepole.

    As ever, it depends on the quality of the resource and, even more importantly, how it’s used.

  11. It does make me cross when Ofsted ‘hints at’ one thing and the DfE states the complete opposite. I had something similar recently with DBS checks, where Ofsted were categorically telling me that committee members were no longer to be classed as volunteers and would have to pay for checks, whereas the DBS said they definitely were. It seems that joined up thinking has disappeared with the effective ‘privatisation’ of these services. In the end I had to complain until the two departments agreed with each other, which is quite frankly ridiculous.

    Okay, Laura is right that people can use text books well, or use them badly. But essentially the message getting through to teachers on the ground is that they are not wholly approved of by Ofsted (even if that’s not the message Ofsted intend to send). Then Liz Truss comes along and puffs them up, which is deeply ironic. (Although give her her due, when I pointed out the Ofsted take on text books to her, she did respond asking for examples. everyone then gave her masses of examples …)

    On the price issue, I rather suspect that most or all of these politicians went to private schools where parents had to stump up for the cost of books, so price was not relevant in the choice that the school had to make. Telling perhaps in terms of their attitude and thinking?

  12. Well, we had jolly Ofsted in a couple of weeks ago. They said essons were a bit dull. No mention was made of textbooks. However, as we have been massively encouraged as a school to make sure that exercise books are used every lesson (in order to demonstrate progress over time) the implication is clearly there.

    We’ve just acquired new textbooks, they come with cds and VLE discs with all sorts of whiteboard activities, film clips, pictures etc etc. textbooks are a very good resource.

    Waiting now with baited breath for the actual report.

    • bated breath

      • Cheers!
        Feels like we are bait though!

  13. Buried in this thread is one highly pertinent comment from Rob: “I think some uk schools don’t use them because kids lose or vandalise them with their parents blessing.”

    The English department’s cupboard in the last school I did some real teaching in, was crammed full of crisply new, unused copies of all sorts of books. The only books children were allowed to keep were annually purchased, exam syllabus anthologies.

    Link that to this impressive longitudinal piece of research about books in the home, and the issue Liz Truss is raising becomes a bit clearer.

  14. Over reliance is the key point here – if standards are good then progress will be evident, a good teacher will know the mix.
    STPCD has nothing to do with this and OFSTED even less – their judgements can’t be used as part of capability.

    • “overreliance” is only the key point in that it is the weasel word used to get off the hook for attacking a particular teaching method. A textbook can be be used badly or well. But can it be used too much? If so, how much is too much? And why don’t OFSTED ever find that they’ve been used too little?

      • By golly Sir, you’re right – dam these weasels, dam them. Now you point their existence out I have found more!

        Text – that is a weasel word – what is wrong with picture books?

        Books Sir, by Gad another – can scrolls not be effective?

        I shall quest with you my man and hunt these weasels out! Together all arguments can be reduced to the absurd!

        I am with you Sir – never fear!

        • Is there a point to this comment? I’m not saying anything particularly insightful or unusual here. Saying one’s criticisms of something is not a sign of being against it per se, but only some particular excessive manifestation of it, is not exactly an unusual practice but it is the tactic of a weasel.

          • In truth, no – I was just being silly.

            But progress is important – text books, worksheets, teacher talk even brain gym are all moot points.

  15. I always understood that the difference between students and pupils was that pupils learnt at the feet of the master whereas students attended lectures and filled in the gaps from all kinds of publications but mainly books. It seems that today’s children in schools are referred to as students but are not encouraged to use books.
    Books have always been the bane of authoritarian regimes. I once had the experience of having a book being confiscated -if I recall correctly The Divine Comedy- by my catholic school because it was on the ” Index Librorum Prohibitorum” .
    When one looks at who doesn’t like books it isn’t just fascist and communist regimes, I once read of Camden Council prohibiting a journalist who had “a wall lined with books” from adopting a baby because, as the social worker said, “you are books”.

    • By Jove Sir, another worthy quest – fear ye not – I am behind you too!

      Till ye mentioned it I never realised how much educationalists hated books! Indebted I am to you – a busy week of questing ahead of us there is – those little loved books of educationalists are mists likely being squirrelled away by the weasels of Camden – fear ye not my man, we shall a fearsome trio be against weasels and book less educationalists – quiver they shall!

  16. […] teaching style – Michael Wilshaw keeps saying they do not, bloggers such as Andrew Old keep showing this isn’t reflected in Ofsted’s behaviour. One or the other is correct. […]

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