Innovation, teacher autonomy and the publishing sector

Eventtemplate Caroline Wright 1

As we move into the second year of our work at the Foundation for Education Development (FED) and following the launch of the FED National Education Consultation Report, we hosted a roundtable discussion focussed on ‘Innovation or ‘initiative-itis’: How can we move from initiatives to long term innovation in education?’

We asked Caroline Wright, Director General of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), to share her insights following her contribution to the roundtable discussion. In this thinkpiece, Caroline talks about teacher autonomy and the growth of the digital publishing sector and how lessons need to be learned from  ‘devastating effects on the domestic publishing industry and the quality of educational resources’ as a result of centralised procurement of curriculum resources in Poland.

Innovation, teacher autonomy and the publishing sector

It has been a long-standing feature of the English education system, that whilst central government sets out the national curriculum, teachers have enjoyed the freedom to teach it in a way that meets their specific teaching needs – including the procurement of resources to accompany those lessons. Research, commissioned by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), of over 4000 teachers shows that this is still the case as 84% of teachers who took part in the survey say that they would rather the government allocate funding directly to schools to choose their own curriculum resources.

Teacher autonomy has been an essential component in the growth of the digital publishing sector enabling hundreds of new providers to enter the market which was once dominated by a small number of major educational publishers. This has given teachers access to an unparalleled choice of inspirational learning materials to meet their specific teaching needs.

However, BESA is concerned that the Department for Education’s (DfE) plans to centralise the procurement of curriculum resources, through its acquisition of Oak National Academy, will lead to an erosion of both teacher autonomy and our strong publishing sector which supports it. BESA’s research indicates that schools are likely to feel pressurised to move away from existing providers they value and enjoy, to perceived ‘Ofsted-proof’ DfE endorsed curriculum resources. Our concerns were reaffirmed when Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, told school leaders that Oak would be “closely aligned” with Ofsted research, and warned school leaders against using a “mix-and-match” of curriculum resources, in reference to Oak. BESA does not believe it is appropriate for senior Ofsted inspectors to be coercing school leaders into using DfE sanctioned resources over highly accredited and much liked commercial providers.

Prior to the pandemic, digital content providers were already widely available and used by teachers, according to the DfE’s own research, 98% of teachers were already using digital publishers for planning lessons and curriculum content before the closure of schools in March 2020. The UK’s healthy and dynamic market means schools also benefit from private investment into the sector at no cost to the taxpayer with over £92m invested in emerging EdTech platforms in 2020.

Considering this, it’s difficult to understand what the DfE’s business case is for Oak. Should the DfE decide to pursue its entrance into the publishing sector, it would likely lead to market failure as school business managers would find it increasingly difficult to justify spending additional financial resources on commercial content. Such a scenario would almost certainly lead to a withdrawal of commercial publishers from the UK market and a significant reduction in the amount of investment spent on education within the UK.

A similar scheme in Poland back in 2014 proved to have devastating effects on the domestic publishing industry and the quality of educational resources. Until the start of the Digital School programme, all textbooks were produced by educational publishers, without direct support from the state. From 2014 however, schools were strongly encouraged to avoid commercial publications and instead choose the ministry’s free-to-use digital textbook platform. This led to a 10% contraction in the publishing sector in the first year alone with many commercial providers leaving the market and precipitated the collapse of the booksellers within Poland. This has meant that not only are more teachers opting for educational resources made for a one-size-fits-all curricular approach but also that fewer Polish citizens are now reading due to a lack of bookstores, for which textbooks were the industry’s backbone. 

Throughout the pandemic, educational suppliers played and critical role in the continuation of learning whilst schools were still closed, BESA members alone contributed over £24m in free educational resources during the first three months of lockdown. Despite this experience, educational suppliers are still considered by some as separate from the education ecosystem, and the DfE’s pursuit of a centralised curriculum body is symptomatic of that. BESA calls on the DfE to carry out a proper consultation involving the entirety of the system, schools, subject associations and industry to inform their plans before causing irreparable damage to teacher autonomy and our world-leading publishing industry.


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