Jill Coleman, Editorial Director of Children’s Books at A & C Black, considers the impact of the National Curriculum on publishing information books for primary schools
It’s hard to believe that it was only 1989 when the first National Curriculum documents started arriving pre-packed from the DES.
Until then, the commissioning editor for non-fiction had two strategies to choose between when deciding which books to publish for primary schools.
She could tackle one of the old favourites in a new and hopefully interesting way (it’s easy to spot an information book editor at a party, she’s the one with an intimate knowledge of the sex life of various small animals). Alternatively, she could commission books in new areas, a task not unlike fortune telling, which involved spending time in schools, listening to children, teachers, advisers, librarians and authors, reading reports and the educational press, and waiting for several different ideas to come together and begin a new project.
A number of pitfalls had to be avoided. The teacher who argued, quite justifiably, that she desperately needed books about the River Thames couldn’t be expected to know (or care) that this would be of little interest to ninety per cent of the publisher’s market. The librarian who gave you the hot tip that there was a sudden insatiable demand for books on post-mills might not tell you that this was the subject of a popular schools TV series ending in a month’s time, long before even the most hastily put together information book could be published. The adviser who was fascinating, inspiring and years ahead of her time, sometimes didn’t appreciate that the hard-pressed classroom teacher might not have the resources to build a Viking longship in the local swimming pool.
Looking at the competition was important, but a book which had no competition was not necessarily a good publishing prospect. Teachers would, not surprisingly, often avoid topics which were insufficiently resourced – and one new information book might not be enough to change their minds.
Some decisions seemed to be based purely on superstition and taboo. Maxims such as ‘White covers don’t sell’, or ‘You can’t teach juniors about electricity and magnetism’ were part of publishing folklore.
Some publishers tried to carry out their market research in a more scientific fashion, sending out questionnaires most of which ended in the headteacher’s wastepaper bin along with the rest of the junk mail. Others formed committees of experts for brainstorming sessions, which made for extremely stimulating afternoons but were generally too short to give rise to anything but a whir of conflicting opinions, leaving the poor editor reeling from the latest educational argument.
Sadly, the only way of knowing that a new book was really needed was by looking at the sales figures, and by then it was far too late. What does one do with several thousand unwanted copies of ‘A day in the life of a Victorian cabby’? The sales manager was likely to come up with several inventive solutions, none of them very comfortable for the poor editor who was responsible.
Like many publishers, we looked at proposals for the National Curriculum with mixed feelings. Would it give us more information on which to base our commissioning? Would it mean we were to be confined to the same old topics year after year? Would every publisher be producing identical and competing books to meet the new demands?
The documents for science had a tremendous impact on our publishing. For the first time, there was to be a set curriculum for primary schools, with a range of very specific subject areas to be covered. Suddenly we had far more definite information on which to base our commissioning.
We looked at our backlist and at our competitors to see which subject areas were poorly resourced. There were plenty of gaps. Many of the old ‘taboo’ subjects were included in the new attainment targets. Although the ‘nature and biology’ side of the science curriculum was well covered, there were huge gaps in the physical sciences, especially at key stage one. We could start commissioning in all these areas with some assurance that there would be a long term demand throughout England and Wales. The new science series we developed at this time, such as ‘Simple Science’ and ‘Toybox Science’ immediately sold well and have continued to be strong sellers.
At the same time, teachers and advisers were exploring how to teach the new science curriculum, and their discoveries gave rise to stimulating discussions and exciting new projects. Many teachers, experimenting with new ways of putting these ideas across, put pen to paper and became published authors.
Because there was such a wide variety of topics to be covered and it was possible to approach topics in a number of different ways, information book publishers didn’t find themselves producing identical books. Using the same guidelines, it was still possible to publish a lively authoritative book, or a dull patronising book.
In 1990, when the attainment targets and programmes of study for English came out, we were extremely pleased to find that they included specific reference to reading for information. I hope this will help to improve the critical assessment of, and therefore the standard of, information books. It’s a shame that this isn’t recognised in the SEAC reading lists which, as far as I can gather, include no information books.
After statutory orders for science and English, the most influential documents have been those for history and geography. In the sixties and seventies we had a tremendous success with our series ‘Looking at History’ and ‘Looking at Geography’ In the eighties, these series were much criticised, but the new ways into historical and geographical subjects seemed to us confused and conflicting. Mostly we were asked for the tried and tested topics, ‘Castles’, ‘A Roman Town’, ‘Volcanoes’, ‘Rivers’, and so on. Many of our cross curricular books, such as the `Threads’ series include historical and geographical elements, but it has been hard to know how to develop historical and geographical themes in new ways.
There has been much argument about the content of the history attainment targets and programmes of study but we have found some of them helpful. The suggestions on the use of historical sources, for example, have helped to inspire ‘History Mysteries’, our new history series for key stage one which uses ‘mystery objects’ from different periods as a starting point. Before the National Curriculum, it would have been extremely difficult to publish history based topic books for this age group.
Coincidentally, some of our backlist titles such as `Beans’ and ‘Wideworld’ fit very well into human geography at key stage one and two, but it has been hard to persuade teachers of this. They seem to think that the guidelines are new so, as far as they can afford, they would like to have new books. We have planned some new geographical series for key stage one as there still don’t seem to be many books for this age group, but these are not yet published.
The technology document has been more difficult to interpret. What sort of books would be most helpful to support this very ‘hands on’ subject? We have published two new series, `Start to Finish’ which looks at the design, manufacture and marketing of new products, and `Built with a Purpose’ which shows how new technological developments, such as windmills, have been developed from early designs to the present day. It now seems likely that the technology documents will be changed so we must wait to see what is finally decided.
On the whole, changes to the documents have been more of a headache for text book publishers than they have been for information book publishers. The library book is much more flexible than the text book which is expected to cover the complete curriculum and can be made redundant by a few changes to the attainment targets.
However, timing has been a problem for each of the subjects introduced. It takes between six months and two years to produce a new information book, and there was rarely more than a few months between the publication of the final orders and their implementation. Publishers have either had to base their new series on consultative documents, hoping that there wouldn’t be too many changes, or be late with the new books.
Extra money for new books has been too little and made available over too short a time, encouraging panic buying of books which may have been hastily put together, or indeed are reissues of old books with new ‘National Curriculum covers’.
The National Curriculum has been more of a positive stimulus than we expected. But many worries still remain. As information book publishers, we have supported the cross curricular approach in primary schools but now increasingly find ourselves talking in terms of subject areas. How far will this go?
We have found that one or two excellent information books, published recently, which were difficult to label as belonging to one particular subject have not sold well. Will there still be a place for the inspired author who isn’t easily fitted in to a National Curriculum category?
Encouragingly, the National Curriculum documents stress wide and varied reading. But will the attainment tests and the vast spectrum of topics which need to be taught in a short space of time push teachers towards using textbooks? Many of the large text book publishers are producing expensive new course books for primary schools, a market which used to be relatively unimportant to them. This is a worrying sign for information book publishers. I know I am biased, but I do feel that children who select the library books which they have decided are appropriate for a topic are learning skills they couldn’t learn by using text books, and are in control of the process rather than following a set programme.
All library books will be seriously affected if the school library services are cut back as, under LMS, they lose their central funding from the education authorities and must rely on individual schools paying for their services. The library services are important to publishers not only for sales but for their invaluable feedback from the many schools they work with. Their collapse would make information books much more dependent on other markets, such as foreign sales, and therefore less relevant to British children and to the National Curriculum.
Since 1989, it has been relatively easy to predict which books were likely to sell best, as teachers and librarians attempted to resource each new subject. What will happen now that this process is more or less complete?
A period of calm would be useful. And then, perhaps, it will be back to fortune telling – with one important difference – the enterprising editor may be able to quote enough attainment targets and programmes of study to convince the sales department that her hunch is a `sure thing’. On the other hand, publishers’ reps have heard it all before. They’ll probably have more sense.