Cut to Bookstart strikes lower class literacy

I am really saddened – and angry – to hear of the Coalition’s latest funding cut, principally because Bookstart was my first ‘proper job’ out of university, and it’s a scheme I care deeply about it because of its simplicity. Somewhat ironically it was also ‘Big Society’ a full 18 years before the present Goverment coined the term.

For those unfamiliar with it, Bookstart is a national programme that encourages all parents and carers to enjoy books with their children from as early an age as possible.

The scheme works by gifting a canvas bag of baby books at every child’s 7 – 9 month health check; with an invitation to join the local library to get them started on the path of early reading and lifelong literacy.

After initial State funding – which, fine, some people will disagree with ideologically – many young-family reading clubs and small localised meet-ups sprang up under the steam of individual communities; librarians, volunteers, carers, and parents. This is why I liken it to what the Coalition generally, and the Tories specifically, are trying to to encourage as part of their Big Society.

For my part, I was the Head Office contact for some 213 localised schemes around the country – helping to smooth the coordination of these schemes between health visitors and library workers. During my time, we had additional funding from Sainsbury’s (and it was the supermarket’s funding that paid my modest wage – not the Government), but corporate funding has ebbed and flowed over the years.

According to the Press Association, a Department for Education spokesman said: “We believe homes should be places that inspire a love of books and reading. However, in these difficult economic times, ministers have to take tough decisions on spending and the particular fund managed by Booktrust will end at the end of this financial year.”

What this decision fails to take into account is the beautiful accessibility of Bookstart; it gifted books – unprejudiced towards the class or literacy of the parents – at a health visit, not at a school or library. It introduced books into the homes of families that – in honesty – may not have been thinking about reading to their children. Anecdotally, I heard of parents improving their own reading habits as they picked up these free books and read them to their child, sometimes for the first time.

Bookstart could have been – should have been – a scheme for the Coalition to hold up and champion, not withdraw from.

I believe in early intervention, be it books for babies or mobility equipment for very young disabled children. The earlier we support kids, the greater their life chances are as they grow and develop. Some of you will disagree that the State should invest in child (and by association parental) literacy in this way. I don’t subscribe to the ‘fend for yourselves’ view, because I have worked for many years with parents and families on very low incomes.

Support the #SaveBooktrust campaign on Twitter; there are lots of families sharing their experiences via the (unofficial) @SaveBookstart Twitter profile – and why not share your experiences of reading as a child? Reading and literacy should not be consigned to the sin bin – if we forsake our children’s learning, what kind of state will we be in when these kids enter school, and eventually employment? Or maybe the idea is to dramatically decrease those applications to university in years to come. I understand that’s only considered for those better off too these days.

27 December UPDATE

It appears the Coalition has since reversed its decision in the 11th hour to cut Bookstart, or has at least extended the funding for now – due to pressure from the public and literary world.

6 thoughts on “Cut to Bookstart strikes lower class literacy

  1. What’s wrong with going to a library? What is wrong with buying some books from a charity shops? I refuse to believe that someone with a child cannot afford a pound for a book and needs the Government to provide them.

    1. My point being that some of the families benefitting from the scheme have no inclination to go to a library in the first place. As I said, Bookstart introduces books into the home – sometimes for the first time – through a health check. Sure, after that hopefully parents will pick up habits of regular reading and library visits. It’s not so much about the cost of books, but the promotion of early literacy. But in saying that along with all the associated costs of having a baby, books may not be top of the list. In some ways this early intervention is the ‘nudge’ that the Tories are so keen to encourage in the public.
      Besides, libraries are not exactly the most secure of organisations in this age of austerity.

  2. I agree. There’s one point you forgot to mention – the fact that Bookstart choose their books carefully. (they don’t give out any old book).

    I have two small children in my house and we have 100s of kids books. But amongst the favourites are the books we have recieved from Bookstart. One book in particular ‘You choose’ by Nick Sharrat we have recommended to lots of other parents as it’s so good.

    I was saddened to hear that the scheme will be cut as it’s really had an impact on our family’s speech and literacy development

  3. Rob – great post, I agree with every word. I was really shocked to hear the news about the cut in funding; as a teacher I have seen at first hand the joy the gift of a book can bring to many chidlren.

    Dizzy – it is a sad fact that spending money on books can be a low priority for many low-income families who are struggling to put food on the table, clothe their children and keep the family home warm. You suggest these people go to the library – this option may soon not be viable in the many areas where local councils are cutting library services drastically. This makes schemes like Bookstart, Book Time and Booked Up all the more essential.

  4. Great blog post Rob,

    I’ve also had the pleasure of working for Bookstart in the past, when I worked on the Bookstart Rhymetimes project in Scotland. Rhymetimes is an amazing scheme where library staff, social workers and health care workers run singing, rhyming and reading sessions for parents and children up to aged 4 in libraries. It was developed by music, literacy and childcare professionals at the top of their game and has proven results. The sessions were held primarily in libraries in communities with low income and low education standards and what struck me was just how many parents I met that said that they would never ever have even considered reading to their children if it weren’t for bookstart and for their health workers encouraging them to come along to the sessions. Many had never even stepped inside a library as they thought that they weren’t for them.

    As Rob said, Bookstart is the ultimate in ‘big society’ with departments across local authorities as well as volunteers and publishers, working together towards a common goal – encouraging literacy for children and parents (who often had poor reading skills themselves) and improving education and personal development in very poor communities.

    I actually can’t express quite how angry this has made me. This scheme works. I have had the massive priviledge of seeing it in action and have also seen the reports and budgets that prove without a shadow of a doubt that Bookstart makes a difference.

  5. This is a very sad development and demonstrates the lack of foresight that the Coalition Government seem to possess. Every public service needs investment for the future and what is more cost effective than ensuring the literacy of the next generation? And given their obsession with profits over people surely they can make a link between early and sustained access to further education and future employability?! Personally I would like to see continued book reading purely for enjoyment and enrichment, however education for the sake of education doesn’t appear to be on the ConDem agenda.

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