A NATIONWIDE scheme which aims to introduce every baby in the country to books by the age of eight months is in danger of folding if organisers fail to find a new sponsor.
The pound;6 million Bookstart programme was launched nationally two years ago by the Book Trust charity with two years' funding from Sainsbury's, the supermarket chain.
Campaigners say that the scheme is a simple yet powerful tool giving children a headstart and that the Government should step in with funding for at least five years when the Sainsbury's deal ends in February.
Some 90 per cent of families with young babies now receive Bookstart's free pack, worth pound;10, when they attend the child's eight-month health check.
The packs include boardbooks, a placemat covered in nursery rhymes and information on sharing books and using libraries.
Such has been the scheme's success so far that Japanese education officials are now to copy it.
Alexandra Strick, head of children's literature for the Book Trust, said: "We really believe that every baby is entitled to this."
Research by the Birmingham University where the programme was piloted, showed how children given the packs performed better than those who had not in all nine categories of baseline assessment when they started school.
And preliminary findings from a study to be published next month, will show the scheme is having a tremendous impact on family learning.
The National Centre for Research into Children's Literature at the University of Surrey Roehampton has found that parents with poor literacy have improved their own skills by reading with their babies.
Distribution of the packs has also boosted attendance at health clinics. In Bren, north London, attendance rose from 28 per cent to more than 95 per cent, according to reports from health visitors.
Parents, who had never thought of giving a book to their baby, were buying books and library attendance had risen as many libraries launched story sessions for babies.
The centre said the Department for Education and Employment should fund the scheme for at least five years to examine the long-term implications.
Although the Government has been a keen supporter of the scheme, it currently only provides pound;50,000 funding through the Basic Skills Agency.
Professor Kim Reynolds, director of the centre, who is carrying out the evaluation with her deputy Gillian Lathey, said: "This scheme links in with every objective that this Government has regarding education. Education experts abroad are shocked and amazed when they learn that it has not got government funding."
The researchers are working with 100 families in Lambeth, Wales, Tyneside, Kent and Derbyshire. More than a million free books have been handed out.
ON THE LIST
The winner of the "Baby Booker", also sponsored by Sainsbury's, will be announced on Wednesday in London.
The award, in its second year, runs in tandem with the Bookstart scheme, and aims to single out the best new books to give to babies.
On the shortlist are the
First Words by Catherine Anholt (Walker Books)
Hello Little Ducklings by Dawn Apperley (David and Charles)
Boo Barney by Alex Ayliffe (Little Orchard)
Animal Noises illustrated by Stephen Cartwright (Usborne Publishing)
Puppy by Cathy Gale (Campbell Books)
Number One, Tickle Your Tum by John Prater (Bodley Head)