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Are you sitting comfortably?

Forget tests and vouchers, says Wendy Cooling. Spend the money instead on giving children stories and a thirst for reading.

Every child needs a bookshelf stocked with new books to enjoy and treasured volumes to return to for security and pleasure. Bookstart grew out of one school visit on the first day of a new term when four- and five-year-olds were at "real" school for the first time. The teacher, faced with a mass of tiny children and nervous parents, gave each child a book to look at or read and tried to persuade the parents to leave. Watching the children was a real eye-opener - some clearly knew all about books and sat happily turning the pages.

But my eye was caught by one little boy who sniffed his book, bent it, turned it round, wondered if he should throw it or sit on it. It seemed likely that he had never held a book in his hands before. There he was alongside readers and other children who had clearly had experience with books, had probably shared books with their parents daily, and he hadn't even reached the starting point.

I wondered if he could ever bridge the gap in experience and catch up with his peers, and I felt a sense of shock and guilt that there could still be children in our schools who have no picture books, have never lifted the flap and found Spot, never poked their fingers through the holes in The Very Hungry Caterpillar or travelled to Where the Wild Things Are.

The huge inequality of experience evident in that reception class is something that must be faced. From that one, not uncommon, school situation, sprang Bookstart. The Birmingham Bookstart pilot project was a co-operative scheme involving the Children's Book Foundation (now Young Book Trust), Birmingham Library Services and Health Authority. Parents and carers taking their baby to the clinic for nine-month health checks were given a book, information about reading and an invitation to join the library.

The children's delight and the extraordinary way they pushed their parents to read to them was immediately apparent. Some of the children, through Bookstart, owned their first book; many parents went on to buy books and to enrol their babies at the public library. Time will tell whether the children involved in the project start school with a more positive attitude to books and reading.

Gift book schemes are not new, for although books are great value for money they still cost more than some families can afford. There are still parents who need to be convinced of the importance of books in their children's development. This year Reading is Fundamental is imported from the United States by the National Literacy Trust; the emphasis is on parents and children reading together - and on book ownership. In Sweden babies receive a book from the government at birth and three more before they start school. In the UK some children are lucky and become part of a Bookstart or a Reading is Fundamental project. But what about the rest?

The value of books is accepted; we know that early shared reading makes children feel positive about books and gives them a great start at school, but instead of giving all our children books, we are obsessed with vouchers and tests. Do we really need to spend millions of pounds testing five-year-olds? How much more positive to spend the money on ensuring that all children have books from an early age and start school motivated to read.

What a message it would give to families - reading is important, it matters so much that we're giving you books to read with your children, books that will start them off on one of the most exciting of life's journeys. Come on Gillian Shephard and David Blunkett, give young children pleasure not tests.

Wendy Cooling is a children's book consultant, reviewer and writer.

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