Booktrust row rumbles on; no full stop in sight

21st January 2011 at 00:00
The Government's Boxing Day funding U-turn pacified the scheme's supporters, but debate continues about whether gifting is the most effective way to boost literacy

The sharp U-turn over Booktrust wasn't just another cuts story - it was the ideal Christmas cuts story.

A week before Christmas, the penny-pinching education secretary decided to snatch back a promised gift of a book from the hands of tiny children up and down the land.

The ghost of Christmas-yet-to-come was evoked by children's author Philip Pullman, who thundered in The Observer: "If you miss the first years of a child's development, nothing can clear it up. It's gone. It won't happen. A whole generation will lose out."

And lo! On Boxing Day, Michael Gove had a change of heart. Books shall once more be shoved into the tiny, fat fists of every baby, toddler and child, but the grumbles stirred up by the whole affair are refusing to die down.

Viv Bird, chief executive of Booktrust, the charity which runs the scheme, was preparing a Boxing Day dinner when Mr Gove phoned to confirm the reprieve.

Ms Bird says: "They should have let us know at the end of September if they were not going to continue funding after March. I had phoned civil servants because we were waiting to hear.

"Then on 17 December, I had an email with a letter attached.

"It was a huge shock to have a 100 per cent cut in programmes that deliver excellent value for money.

"We told our partners and we had to tell staff. Then the news got out and it escalated."

While the outrage at the scheme's scrapping was widespread, it has become clear that support for state-sponsored "book-gifting" is far from universal.

Booktrust runs three book-gifting schemes: Bookstart, Booktime and Booked Up, all of which are supported by the Government. It estimates that for every #163;1 invested by government, it generates an additional #163;4 in support from private sector partners.

News of the cut spread fast through Twitter, Facebook and comments on forums, such as TES Connect, prompting first the outcry and then the partial U-turn.

The Department for Education now says it "will continue to fund Booktrust book-gifting programmes in the future" and that this will involve developing a new programme that ensures every child will have books as gifts, while also supporting the most disadvantaged families.

Philip Pullman is pleased. "This is something we do as a nation for all our children. All our children are equally valuable, and as a nation we had decided a few years ago that this is a good way of helping them take the first step on the path to becoming readers," he says.

"I think they made a huge blunder in announcing their intention to cut the grant in this sweeping, arrogant way. Knowledgeable people said they were very wrong to do this and, like the sports cuts, they had to do a U-turn. To save face they are pretending it is not a U-turn, but it looks like that."

He is also keen to preserve the philosophy of giving a book to everyone. "One of the important things about it is its universality - it should belong to everyone, be for everyone. We should not be so mean as to say, 'This is only for a few people, the rest don't need it.' Heavens above, there are plenty of middle-class children in homes with money who are deprived of books."

But others disagree. Some say free books are wasted on those who would buy or borrow them anyway. Others claim they are wasted on those who have little interest in reading.

Telegraph columnist Stephen Pollard berated Mr Gove for his lack of backbone. Under the headline "The chattering classes get their way - again", he pointed out that while his 15-month-old daughter loved Happy Dog, Sad Dog, he did not think the taxpayer should be buying her books.

And there was some support for this argument online, too. RJR_38 said on TES Connect: "I work in a deprived area and I have to say that although the free books for babies and school starters is nice, I'm really not sure it makes much difference.

"Often the books are already popular ones, so those parents who read with their children already have the book, so the money is wasted.

"Other parents who aren't fussed really couldn't care less and often just tut and either refuse to take them or say they will simply throw them away (I've seen it countless times)."

This was far from universal. Tafkam, a regular contributor to TES Connect, said his experience was different. "I worked in the library service in largely affluent areas, but also in those hard-to-reach communities where library visiting was not part of the culture, and particularly where library experience was unfamiliar to the young mums and others struggling to do the right thing for their children.

"Our experience showed that the Bookstart scheme - combined with an active approach from the library service - made a huge difference. I have worked with younger parents particularly, who had no idea that libraries even had children's books available. They imagined them to be stuffy places filled with earnest texts."

Greg Brooks, emeritus professor of education at Sheffield University, has carried out research into the impact of Bookstart.

"What all the various pieces of research tend to show is that there is an immediate impact on library registration and library use by parents with the child," he says.

"That giving of a first pack when a child is still a baby does appear to encourage parents to register at the library, then to use books with their children, and there is very strong evidence from other research that sharing books with children before school has a positive impact on their attainment at school."

Supporters of the scheme, such as children's author Shirley Hughes, have raised the question of whether the "development" promised would simply be a cut in disguise.

Ms Bird says she acknowledges there would probably be a cut, but says that book-gifting is a valid way for the Government to help children's reading.

"The Bookstart programme was started by Wendy Cooling many years ago as a response to concerns about children starting primary school with poor language skills. It has now been adopted by governments across the world," Ms Bird says.

"The Government's financial contribution is still a small proportion of the total value of the whole programme. If you look at the partner and sponsorship deals, that is not money, it is done in kind, but we still need the government funding to unlock that support from the private sector.

"We do want to continue with a universal approach. Over the next period, we will have to see how that might work out in terms of funding.

"Booktrust is very conscious of the need to cut costs and do more for less. As part of the response to the economic situation, we have been doing that - offering ways to cut back. The book packs are fabulous but everything we put in them costs money.

"We are looking for a five-year commitment from the coalition Government. If they can commit to governing for five years, then we can commit to gifting for five years."



- Bookstart provides packs of books to all babies and toddlers at three different ages: nine months, 18 months and three years.

- Booktime donates a pack after children start school.

- Booked Up gives all Year 7 pupils the chance to choose a free book.



Bookstart began in 1992 with just 300 babies in Birmingham. In 1999, Sainsbury's decided to sponsor the programme and it was rolled out nationally. In 2004, the Government announced it would fund the scheme. Booktime and Booked Up followed in 2007.


'Not just another book - a whole experience'

At Fairlawn Primary School in south London, children have helped to make a collage of a giant sloth hanging around, as sloths do.

It is just one of the activities inspired by this year's Booktime fiction book, Slowly, Slowly, Slowly, Said The Sloth by Eric Carle.

Fairlawn's head of early years Tor Hemsley plans work for the class around the book, given to all reception children each year.

She says: "I've been in reception for two years and Booktime has been fantastic. We get a lot of work out of it. We get a class big book as well, and other resources. So we've always had a week of work about the book, and then at the end of the week every child takes their own copy home.

"We say they are a reward for their first full week in reception. They love it.

"It would be a shame if it was cut because the books are not only a great core text by great authors, but have non-fiction and poetry as well.

"If our children go home and tell their parents about the book, that helps the link between home and school.

"If only a few children had the book, we probably would not plan our work around it.

"We have children from a huge range of backgrounds. If it stopped, it would be a complete shame. We get as much out of it as possible. It's not just another book - it's a whole experience."

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