Children's book scheme reaches the end of the road

7 Jul 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 7 Jul 2015

Gruffalo author and Bookstart supporter Julia Donaldson

When the Department of Education announced it was to stop funding Northern Ireland’s Bookstart scheme it said it was “working around the clock” to find alternative sources of funding. 

Time has now run out and the scheme is to end this month. The Book Trust which operates Bookstart has received a letter from officials saying that there is no way the £254,000 scheme can be re-instated because the alternative would be to lay off more teachers.

Bookstart has been running in Northern Ireland for 10 years. Over that period parents of every child are handed a book pack by their health visitor soon after birth and others are given out to pre-school children. All together 50,000 packs were given out last year. The idea is to encourage parents to read more to their children and embed a love of books and reading at the earliest stage possible.

The decision to stop funding has been condemned by authors and illustrators including former Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson, author of the Gruffalo series, who told Scope:

“I find it very sad that at a time when other European countries are introducing book-gifting programmes, Northern Ireland is doing away with the Bookstart packs which are given to 50,000 babies and children.

“With bookshops in decline and the public and schools library services already facing cuts, it seems vital to carry on with this enlightened and well-tested method of getting books into homes, encouraging the enjoyment of reading and increasing the literacy levels of the next generation.

“Many homes have no books in them, and around half the prison population is illiterate; do we really want to take a measure which will make that situation even worse? I hope the Northern Ireland Government will think again.”

Bookstart’s social return on investment is astonishing: for every £1 the state invests in it, it returns £25 worth of value to society. Specific outcomes are: 

  • increasing quality time that children and their parents/carers spend together
  • improving literacy and learning for children in households where there is low, or no, reading activity
  • reducing the spend on remedial education services in primary and secondary schools for children who would otherwise have fallen behind
  • reducing the incidence of negative long-term outcomes that can result from low levels of literacy
  • increasing individual well-being due to calming effect on children through reading

Further research suggests that for nearly two-thirds of households, the Bookstart pack may introduce the first baby books into the home and be the first encouragement for parents/carers to read with their child.

As a result of its success, it has been replicated in many countries across the world, 34 at the last count. So today the Falklands Islands, Japan, Serbia and the Netherlands, for example has the scheme. Northern Ireland is the only part of the British Isles without it.

Poor literacy levels are endemic in Europe. Last year to the EU Commission founded the European Literacy Policy Network (ELINET), to make policy recommendations that the EU Commission can then make to EU governments. The network has 80 organisations across almost all European countries.

The Book Trust, as a result of its pioneering work on Bookstart and other schemes, is leading two of the ten strands of this project. So whilst it is pivotal role in promoting reading right across Europe, its advocacy in Northern Ireland is falling on deaf ears.

It is not as if we don’t need the help. Literacy levels in Northern Ireland continue to be a major concern. A survey two years ago ranked NI 19th out of the 24 nations surveyed.

It’s hard to believe that this cut will do anything to remedy that position.

Liz Canning, Northern Ireland National Development Manager at Book Trust says that she is determined to try to secure funding in order to keep Bookstart going, albeit to a limited extent, perhaps confined to a single Health Trust area and will be keeping up the fight to revive a much loved service which is now coming to an end.



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