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.