I could write a great deal here about the need to encourage in children the habit of reading for pleasure and the need to help parents to start reading with their children. There is masses to say about the folly of government plans to remove funding from the brilliant Bookstart scheme which has since 1992 (interestingly set up under a Tory administration like the one which now seeks to remove it) given books to all children at three key points before they start school with subsequent schemes later in their school careers. Fantastic books by leading authors and illustrators accompanied by advice for parents on how to get into the habit of reading with their children because an awful lot of parents aren’t readers themselves and don’t know how to start with their children.
An army of Bookstart coordinators run activities such as reading groups in community centres, promote library membership, advise childminders and nurseries and generally work tirelessly to build on the basic premise of giving children their very own books from an early age. And the inclusive nature of the scheme which gives books to all pre-schoolers rather than just those who are means-tested or specially selected by some other means as needing additional help promotes the idea of reading as an activity for everyone. It doesn’t feel like charity or ‘intervention’ and thus has no stigma.
My own experience with young people who haven’t developed the habit of reading possibly points up the need for the Bookstart scheme rather well.
I have a PGCE and worked for some time with teenagers who were drifting into further education following undistinguished school careers. This was in the mid to late ’90s and these teenagers were too old to have benefitted from Bookstart. The common factor that linked all of them was that they didn’t read for pleasure. I found that if I could get them to start reading it helped their attainment levels in the subjects they were studying. What they read might not have been directly related to their courses but it was part of a process that made visiting the college library less of a chore, helped them to realise that the knowledge it held could help them to achieve the jobs and careers that they aspired to but which they felt were impossible to grasp, that books were not dusty and irrelevant. Would they have passed more exams if they and their parents or carers had benefitted from Bookstart? Maybe not. But it wouldn’t have hindered them and it might have improved their attainment levels.
It is not over-dramatic to say that losing Bookstart would be a tragedy. Books can change lives. Establishing and maintaining the habit of reading can dramatically alter the life chances of children and young people. Books are one of the foundation stones of our culture and to erode the importance of reading will undoubtedly undermine much of our country’s literary, artistic, scientific and business standing.
That picture book about a penguin or a patchwork elephant or a cat or a digger is the beginning of an imaginative adventure which can change lives. Don’t let that adventure be stifled at the very beginning. Bookstart’s £13 million of funding is the equivalent of a second-class stamp for every person in the country. Not even peanuts; cheaper than peanuts.
You can sign the petition to keep Bookstart’s funding here. Please do.