Schoolbook publishers: the case for the defence

Tue, Jan 29, 2013, 00:00

Leftfield:Educational publishers are but one small stakeholder in primary and post-primary education in Ireland, a sector in which €8 billion is spent annually. The educational publishing market represents less than 1 per cent of this expenditure; the textbook market was worth about €55 million in 2012, down from €60 million two years ago, despite increasing student numbers.

However, this sector takes the brunt of complaints about escalating education costs. Despite the fact that all publishers have frozen prices for the past four years and provide hundreds of jobs directly and indirectly in bookshops.

Top of the myth list is the “constant” revisions of schoolbooks. The fact is that 30 out of a total of 2,114 schoolbooks on the market were revised in 2012. This figure is minor by any standards, just 1.4 per cent of the annual output. And almost two-thirds of these revisions were necessitated by curriculum change, particularly Project Maths. Two years ago members of the Irish Educational Publishers’ Association (IEPA) adopted a code of practice which ensures textbooks remain available for a minimum of six years.

Publishers actively avoid revisions as they incur additional costs including new design, production, printing and warehousing, which cannot be reclaimed from the buyer as the price remains the same.

Since 2009, and in some cases 2008, the prices of Irish schoolbooks, particularly exam and revision publications, have been frozen or, in some cases, reduced.

This price freeze took place despite a 25 per cent rise in global paper costs. Barnardos’ school costs survey 2012 acknowledges some reduction in schoolbook costs. When benchmarked against international schoolbook prices, Irish prices are generally 10-20 per cent cheaper (in some cases as much as 75 per cent cheaper) than their UK equivalents.

Publishers in the UK and the US charge substantial fees for the digital and other resource materials for teachers that accompany textbooks, but Irish publishers provided these at no extra cost. These include in-class activities and audio files, CDs, videos, ebooks, teacher resource books, websites, inspection copies, podcasts, downloadable notes, interactive exercises, homework examples and helpdesks.

All IEPA textbook and eBooks are national-curriculum based and developed for each specific age group and academic level. They are essential tools for the teacher to facilitate an engaging, inspiring and effective learning environment for students. IEPA publishers also provide eBook versions of school books, charging between 25 per cent and 35 per cent less than the printed books and helping to make schoolbags lighter.

Members have invested and continue to invest heavily in developing an infrastructure that will enable all schools in the country to benefit from new technology. Each of the member companies allows the user to access its ebooks on up to three different devices.

However, unlike printed books, eBooks attract a VAT charge of 23 per cent, which negates a lot of these savings. The IEPA has called on the Minister for Finance to reduce this. An alternative might be to allow schools to reclaim VAT costs.

In discussions on the development of ebooks in the classroom, the cost of the tablet, laptop, smartphone or other device must be taken into account as they are a significant additional cost, often three times the cost of the books required.

According to the Barnardos survey, the spend on uniforms each year is of the same order as the spend on textbooks. Rising voluntary contributions and stationery are also major costs in education but are rarely identified. The arrival of the tablet will see a further rise in the back-to-school costs for parents and again publishers are blamed even though they have no influence over the price of these devices.

IEPA members provide quality, curriculum-based and assessment-aligned products that are crucial to scholarship and vital for academic success. Their publications maintain objectivity, cultural integrity and top-quality production standards.

* Cliodhna O’Donoghue is secretary general of the Irish Educational Publishers’ Association (IEPA)

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