School textbooks: passport to exam success but at what price?

Disturbing findings of a study of secondary school textbooks

Textbooks: the key to exam success but impoverished learning

1. Why we should be concerned
No fewer than 8.9 million pupils attended 24,000 state-funded and independent schools schools in England in 2020/21. Of these, a little over 3 million attended a state secondary school (https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/national-pupil-projections#dataDownloads-1). The total number of secondary school pupils in the independent sector is regrettably not available but if we assumed that the number was a sixth of state school pupil numbers, then the number would be 500,000 pupils per year. Extrapolating from these figures, we are looking at a massive 35 million pupils in the secondary school system over a ten year period.

What does this number look like? Well, the Sun newspaper has a monthly readership of around 38m (based on readership in Great Britain from April 2019 to March 2020), a large enough figure to arouse concern in relation to the paper’s ownership by News International and, ultimately, the man behind that, Rupert Murdoch. It was Ralph Miliband who wrote, alarmingly, about the media’s power to ‘shape how we think about the world’ and to keep controversies ‘within a safe, fairly narrow spectrum’, ensuring that the media continues in its task of being ‘a system of domination, and a means of reinforcing it’.

Given the attention that people afford to the media and its contents – logical given its reach in society – it makes sense to investigate the information contained in secondary school textbooks, books which (as we have seen) have as wide a reach cumulatively as the newspaper with the largest circulation.

This examination of secondary school textbooks was undertaken by the Truth University in conjunction with The British Constitution Group and the Barnet Action Support Hub (BASH).

2. Information, democracy and education
The third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) had thought carefully about the role played by information in guaranteeing a nation’s freedom, writing that: ‘If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be ….The People cannot be safe without information.  When the press is free and every man is able to read, all is safe’.

It follows, that when information is not ‘free’ – in other words when it is tainted by agendas – people can neither be safe nor enjoy freedom and freedom.  In this quotation, Jefferson refers only to the role of the media, a major source of information, but another is of course education.  It was very likely the capacity that education offers of controlling minds that led Rockefeller to set up and finance the new General Education Board and hire Frederick Gates, a reassuring Baptist minister, to oversee it.  

From this position, Gates wrote Occasional Letter No. 1, published in 1912, in which he stated that ‘in our dream, we have limitless resources, and the people (rural folk) yield themselves with perfect docility to our moulding hand….… unhampered by tradition.’  Ominously, he went on to add that ‘We shall not try and make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science.’

Just six years later, we find Dr Inglis detailing in his ‘Principles of secondary education’ of 1918  the purposes that he ascribes to education.  Of these, two are: a.to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority.  He calls this the ‘adjustive’ or ‘adoptive’ function, and b. via the ‘integrating’ function, to make children as alike as possible (Gatto, p.xviii)

Is it coincidence that Dr Inglis was in charge of the secondary textbook publishing divisions of Houghton Mifflin, an established leader in textbook publishing at time? If not chance, one can imagine how textbooks could be the vehicle for achieving the two purposes set down by Inglis.

With this in mind, one might note the presence at Houghton Mifflin – this time in charge of Elementary school texts – of the prominent educationalist, Ellwood P Cumberley, Dean of Stanford’s influential school of education. His views?   In his book ‘Public School administration’ (1922) he describes schools as ‘factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned and that is the business of the school to build the school according to the specification laid down’ (Gatto, p.xxi).

A little under twenty years later, we find similar sentiments expressed in Britain by Thomas Thompson, the son of a clog-maker and cotton-mill worker, who made good later in life.  This was no credit to his education – he once called his education ‘a poor do’ and left both school and the mill that he worked at on a part-time basis, as soon as he could.  He went on to write a regular column in the Guardian and have sixteen books published.  One of these was his book Lancashire for Me (1940) where he suggested that: So-called education can be used to produce slaves, soldiers and snobs, as well as gentlemen … You can Bolshevize people by education, or you can make them into the perfect Nazi.  Unless the intended victim has trained himself to think for himself.’

3. Information literacy
Information literacy and critical thinking are considered to be related concepts (Hollis, 2019) and so, given the relationship between functional literacy and information literacy, an understanding of how literacy today compares with the past is important.  According to data gathered in the US military at the point of enlistment, literacy and illiteracy rates were as follows:

Illiteracy (%) Literacy (%)

1930s 2 98

1940 4 96

1951 19 81

1960s 22 73

Table 1: literacy rates in the US over time (Gatto, 2017)

These American figures show a sharp decline in literacy over time and the fact that the performance of the UK is only slightly above that of the US in the international comparison of literacy attainment in 65-77 countries – this is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment known as ‘Pisa’ – in 2018, with the US and the UK appearing as just average (see https://i2.wp.com/factsmaps.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/pisa-2018.png), suggests perhaps that the UK and US, as first world countries, have followed a similar downward trajectory.

Figure 1: literacy proficiency among adults (Pisa, 2018)

Low rates of literacy proficiency would reduce information literacy and the ability to think critically.  This is something to bear in mind when considering the content of contemporary educational textbooks as we do in the rest of this article.

4. Selection of textbooks
The textbooks that were reviewed were gathered randomly from parents with children in both the state and independent schools sectors. They consisted of the following books:

Combined science: the revision guide higher level (2016), CGP (GCSE course)

Go Science’ (2008) Heinemann (aimed at pupils aged 11-14)

Physics: Pearson Edexcel International GCSE (9-1) student book Brian Arnold, Penny Johnson and Steve Woolley (Published by Pearson)

KS3 Geography (2014), CGP (aimed at pupils aged 11-14)

‘Geography Review’ (2019), A level geography,  Sep 33 (1), Hodder Education 

‘Geography Review’ (2019), A level geography, Nov 33(2), Hodder Education

‘Geography Review’ (2020), A level geography, Feb 33 (3), Hodder Education

Economics Edexcel  AS/ A level year 1 (2015),   Theme 1 Introduction to markets and market failure,  Mark Gavin, Hodder Education

Economics Edexcel A level  year 2 (2016), Theme 4  A global perspective,  Quintin Brewer  Hodder Education

‘Modern World History’, Option B:  The 20th century (2013), Ben Walsh, Hodder Education (part of GCSE course)

KS3 English, CGP (aimed at pupils aged 11-14)  (no date of publication provided)

Key Stage Three English:  the study guide, CGP  (no date of publication provided)

5. Textbook publishers
Two publishers dominate the random selection of textbooks shown above, namely Hodder Education and CGP.  What do we know of these?

Where Hodder is concerned, Hodder Education is the second largest publisher of secondary school textbooks in the UK and a market leading publisher in the International market. Hodder Education is part of Hachette UK, the largest and one of the most diversified publishers in the UK (for their board, see https://www.hachette.co.uk/landing-page/hachette/our-key-staff/). 

The company works with a number of bodies offering GCSE and A level qualifications including OCR, AQA (set and mark over half of all GCSEs and A-levels taken in the UK every year), Edexcel, WJEC and Eduqas.  The close ties between Hodder and examination boards shows the tight connections between textbook production and examination systems used in the UK and overseas.

In terms of CGP, their books are used in nine out of ten schools (see https://www.cgpbooks.co.uk/).  They claim that 12 million products were sold in 2020 so they have an extensive reach into the minds of young people.  They claim that their books ‘meticulously crafted by top teachers and our resident subject specialists’ (see https://www.cgpbooks.co.uk/info/about-cgp).

So, the size of these two publishers shows the potential reach and influence that their textbooks have on young minds. 

6. School textbooks: findings
A full report is available elsewhere but here we summarise the main findings across a variety of disciplines.

1. Inaccurate information: the textbooks make assertions that are questionable in their accuracy, leaving the impression that their purpose is one of advocacy rather than education. This has serious implications in terms of the integrity of the textbooks with young, maleable minds, particularly given the view that ‘a lie told often enough become the truth’ (Lenin).

2. Omission of important, sometimes contradictory information: the textbooks frequently omit to mention information that could contradict the facts presented, leading to a bias in the information submittted.

3, Placing the learning in a context which may confuse the learner There are instances where the context to the learning is surprising or unhelpful to learning

4.Offering advice that does not promote integrity in learning There are instances where the guidance offered is questionable in its integrity.

We expand on these points below and then conclude from these findings.

6.1 Inaccurate information
There are many examples but to cite just a few: (a) Comment on the media: In the Science textbook, ‘Go Science’ (2008), the following statement is made concerning the media: ‘… every day we hear about real science on the news, read about it in newspapers or magazines, or view it on the internet.  Some sources of information are more reliable than others’.  It goes on to state: ‘If the science is being reported on a national news programme or in a major newspaper then the reporters will probably have checked the information to make sure it is correct.  Information on the Internet isn’t always checked. People often put information that is wrong or silly on their web pages.  If you come across websites with the words ‘alternative’, ‘alt’ or unofficial’ in their addresses then the information may not be correct’ (p.150).

With what we know about the concentration of the media in few hands, and the control known to be exercised by media owners (eg Rupert Murdoch), the statement that newspaper reports are always correct is simply not accurate. By the same token, information on the internet is no more likely not to be checked than the information in a newspaper. Information can only be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and not on the basis of the organ in which the information; is to be found.

(b) Comment on Peer Review: in the general text on Combined Sciences for GCSE (CGP), in a discussion of Climate Change, it is stated that: ‘‘evidence for this has been peer reviewed – so you know that the information out there is reliable’ (p.92).  A similar statement concerning the infallibility of Peer Review occurs in the statement there that ‘Most real science is carried out by teams of scientists and their findings are checked by other scientists before they are reported.  This is called peer review.’ (p.151). In a similar way, the textbook ‘Go Science’ (2008) which states that: ‘Most real science is carried out by teams of scientists and their findings are checked by other scientists before they are reported.  This is called peer review’. (p.151).

To present Peer Review as offering any kind of infallible litmus test is to disregard a mass of evidence that attests to the contrary.   For, just some of the critics have included editors in chief of foremost medical journals and others have spoken of the unreliability of peer review through the conduct of their own empirical studies (Peters and Ceci, 1982; Bohannon, 2013) have exposed the lack of reliability and validity in the system and children deserve to be made aware of this. At the very least, it would teach children that the science reported in Peer Review journals is not necessarily correct.

(c) Comment on the bleaching of coral reefs: in the A level geography magazine for November 2019 (vol 33, 2, Hodder Education) there is an article by Prof Noel Castree, University of Manchester, and Rob Bellamy on how global warming can be managed. As part of that, there is a reference to ‘the ‘recent bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef’ as a result of the acidification of the oceans’ (p.10).

To link the bleaching indubitably to global warming is not accurate for two reasons. Firstly, bleaching of corals can be quite normal – especially in dramatic El Ninos like the one the GBR experienced in 2017 which serve to reduce the sea level, leading to bleaching (see http://landscapesandcycles.net/falling-sea-level–bleached-great-barrier-reef.html).  Secondly, all coral retain greater densities of symbiotic algae (symbionts) in the winter but reduce that density in the summer, which often leads to minor seasonal bleaching episodes that are usually temporary. Under those circumstances coral typically return to normal within weeks or months (see (https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2017/04/10/delingpole-gullible-fools-believe-great-barrier-reef-dying/).

(d) Comment on the burning of the Reichstag building: the History GCSE textbook covering twentieth century history from the period of the Second World War up to the end of the century, In the section concerning the rise of the Nazi party, the text reports on the Reichstag fire, stating that: ‘He (Hitler) called another election for March 1933 to try and get an overall Nazi majority in the Reichstag….Then on 27 February, there was a dramatic development: the Reichstag building burnt down:  Hitler blamed the Communists and declared that the fire was the beginning of a Communist uprising.  He demanded special emergency powers to deal with the situation and was given them by President Hindenburg.   The Nazis used these powers to arrest Communists, break up meetings and frighten voters.’ In terms of who was responsible for the fire, the text states that: ‘There have been many theories about what caused the fire, including that it was an accident, the work of a madman, or a Communist plot.  Many Germans at the time thought that the Nazis might have started the fire themselves’ (p.246).

Reading this, you would gain the impression that the theory that the Nazis started the fire themselves had traction only in 1933 and not beyond that date. This would be incorrect in fact since in 2001, new evidence emerged in April 2001, 12 years before the textbook was published, that the fire was the work of the Nazis in order to discredit the communists, impose emergency rule win the forthcoming elections.

In fact, twelve years before the textbook was written new evidence came to light that proved the Nazis’ hand in the arson attack. This would show that a sitting government (Hitler was elected Chancellor four weeks before the attack and presided over a coalition government) can stage a False Flag attack. How strong is this new evidence?

Well, you can judge for yourself by looking at the details here – https://history-groby.weebly.com/uploads/2/9/5/6/29562653/telegraph-_proof_the_nazis_set_the_reichstag_on_fire.pdf . As you can see, the new evidence has the garnered the support of no fewer than four leading German historians and rests on the aural testimony of Nazi stormtrooper, Adolf Rall. He told prosecutors of a meeting of the SA stormtroopers during which the SA leader, Karl Ernst, ordered the stormtroopers to enter the Reichstag through a tunnel and sprinkle flammable liquid inside.   Ernst allegedly told his men that an excuse was needed to begin attacking Communists and indeed, following the fire, 25,000 Left-wing activists were arrested and tortured and an emergency decree passed establishing absolute Nazi authority.

The fact that the History textbook is not definitive about the government’s role in causing the fire conceals from learners the fact that government’s can manipulate events in their favour. By concealing from young minds the culpability of a government in a major act of arson, learners are protected from knowledge which may assist them in understanding other events, past and present. Could this perhaps have been the reason that the 2001 evidence was ignored in the textbook?

With this somewhat disturbing thought centre-stage, let us now move on to the next problematic category, namely the omission of important information.

6.2 Omission of important, sometimes contradictory information
We have space here to highlight two omissions.

Vaccines
The first concerns the text relating to vaccines in the General Science GCSE textbook where it is stated that: ”Vaccines have helped control lots of communicable diseases that were once common in the UK (eg polio, measles, whooping cough, rubella, mumps, tetanus…) (p.47).

This statement fails to present the evidence for the fact that incidences of polio may have been caused not by any communicable disease but by the effects of DDT spraying. initiated in 1945, an argument made by Dr Morton S. Biskind in 1953 in an article in the American Journal of Digestive Diseases. (see https://onecellonelightradio.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/everything-about-polio-is-wrong-ddt-good-for-me.pdf and https://christianobserver.net/the-ddt-polio-sham-polio-caused-by-pesticide-exposure/).  He argued there that ‘Central nervous system diseases (CNS) such as polio are actually the physiological and symptomatic manifestations of the ongoing government- and industry sponsored inundation of the world’s populace with central nervous system poisons.’

GM foods
The second instance concerns the reference to GM foods. The text gives as the only risk to human health the fact that ‘people are worried that they may develop allergies to the food – although there’s probably no more risk for this than eating usual foods’ (p.78). What this statement omits is reference to the following downsides concerning which no mention is made:

  • Other crops and wild plants may become contaminated with the foreign genes added to the GM crop
  • New ‘super-weeds’ may evolve which will be difficult or even impossible to eradicate
  • Pollution arising from the use of harmful chemicals may increase or decrease
  • Wildlife may be harmed by new toxins in the environment or changes in agricultural practices (for this and the points above, see http://www.genewatch.org/sub-532322)

Moreover, developing nation farmers have been committing suicide in large numbers due to the financial burdens of buying new seed, and not recycling non-GM seeds and

Statins
The third instance in the same textbook concerns the reference to statins, referring to the widespread benefits of statins whilst limiting the disadvantages to the fact that they can cause kidney failure, liver damage and memory loss (p.34). In fact, although statins are the most widely prescribed, cholesterol-lowering drugs in the world with total sales estimated at US$1 trillion for 2020, the raw data from the clinical trials has yet to be released. 

A bitter dispute has erupted among doctors over suggestions that statins should be prescribed to millions of healthy people at low risk of heart disease and the text makes no reference at all to these important issues and the question as to whether the risks outweigh the benefits for people at low risk of cardiovascular disease.

For more background, on the disturbing lack of transparency regarding statins see:  Demasi, M. (2018),  Statin wars: have we been misled about the evidence? A narrative review, https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/52/14/905  and also https://www.bmj.com/campaign/statins-open-data

We move on now to our third category of problem.

6.3 Placing the learning in a context which may confuse the learner The Fench textbook introduces French as spoken in many parts of the Francophone world and since the textbook is at GCSE level this will confuse the learner. Teaching French through the mores of France would be preferable for this level of learning, with learners having the option later on in their studies to listen to French as spoken in other parts of the francophone world.

Since the focus away from France is not necessarily beneficial to the process of language learning, one wonders whether this focus is there to dilute a Eurocentric approach. This would be consistent with a drive to develop a sense of the Global in young people, one that follows an entirely different objective from that of learning the complexities of the French language.

It is not at all clear why, if the objective is genuinely one of teaching a modern language, a political purpose should be added to the task of language acquisition. Perhaps the will to teach the language has taken a back seat, a plausible view given the dramatic decline in standard of modern languages expectations since the era of ‘O’ levels.

Indeed, one could anticipate that adopting a non-Eurocentric approach will confuse learners and reduce proficiency, reinforcing the steady decline in standards which continued in the announcement in January 2022 that the vocabulary word-count expected for GCSE would reduce down to below 2000 words (this by the way, is the vocabulary of a 4-5 year old). Would an EFL teacher with any sense expect their non-advanced students to understand English as spoken by the chattering classes as also English spoken with the regional accents of Birmingham, Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland? I think – and hope- not.

6.4. Offering advice that does not promote integrity in learning
There are instances where the guidance offered is questionable in its integrity. Two cases occur in English textbooks. The first is in a KS3 CGT English textbook (p.121) where the learner is advised to remove any hesitancy in using exaggeration when advancing an argument.  The text contrasts the effectiveness of this sentence – ‘Some scientists think the earth is getting warmer quite quickly…… so many people might not have enough food’ with a modified version that is offered to the reader as being more effective:  This second version reads: ’Many scientists believe the earth is getting warmer at a frightening rate …..causing billions of people to starve’.

Following this new version, the textbook advises the reader to ‘ be careful’, stating that ‘you’re allowed to exaggerate but you’re not allowed to lie’.  This is rather extraordinary advice since learners should not be counselled to embellish and distort the truth. The example used – that of climate change – shows that distortion may be employed in the presentation of information on this topic.

The second example comes from the Study Guide accompanying this textbook in its sections on Shakespeare’s plays. There, we see how an instrumental argument is advanced for the study of these plays – creating ‘a good answer’ – with no mention of other reasons for studying the Bard’s plays. So, gone are any references to the quality of the language or content, and instead are references to ‘long-winded’ and ‘irritating’ speeches and language described as ‘weird’, ‘boring’ and ‘bizarre’ and ‘utter twaddle’ (pp.37 and 41).  Yes, the publisher has a reputation for being cool, but this is to stretch things beyond what is helpful for an education rooted in positive learning.

7. Conclusions
A brief dive into the world of secondary school textbooks has revealed a quagmire of disinformation and idealistic manipulation that examined here was gathered from parents whose children are using or have used these texts currently or in the recent past.  The children concerned are based both in the independent and comprehensive school sectors. Generic concerns relate to:

1. Bias in the presentation of information on Climate Change, vaccination and history.

2. Related to point (1) are numerous factual inaccuracies.  These include the views expressed on the impartiality of the mainstream media and peer review and the lack of reliability of internet sources.  These views fly in the face of evidence pointing to the contrary.

3. An approach to learning focused on producing good examination answers.  Such an approach leaves little room for varied opinion or discussion of the facts.

4. Constant beating of certain political drums – climate change, vaccination and critical race theory – with these themes appearing even where arguably they have no place (for example in a modern languages textbook).

Given the close links between the textbooks and examination boards, any reform of textbooks would need to be accompanied by reforms, also, to examination curricula and systems.  So, comments on the evidence presented here are invited with responses please to be sent to:  infotruthuniversity@protonmail.com.  Ideally, comments are welcome before the end of March 2022 and they will be collated in a separate response.

Select references

Gatto, J.T. (2017), ‘Weapons of Mass instruction’, New Society Publishers,

Hollis, H. (2019) Information Literacy and Critical Thinking: Different concepts, shared conceptions. In: Proceedings of the Conceptions of Library and Information Science 10th International Conference (Colis 2019). University of Borås, Sweden: Ljubljana, Slovenia. 

Peters, D.P.. and Ceci, S.J. (1982), Peer-Review Practices of Psychological Journals: The Fate of Published Articles, Submitted Again, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 5 (2):187-195

Milliband, R. (1973), The State in a Capitalist Society: The Analysis of the Western System of Power, Quartet Books

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