Bookstart

Never heard of them until today? OK, maybe you have if you have small children. But why have they suddenly made headlines? Because they have had their government funding removed and they – and their supporters including the bandwagon jumping leader of the Labour party – are complaining.

What are they all about then?

For starters they refer to themselves as a ‘national independent charity’. This could be said to be slightly disingenuous as it is the parent organisation – Booktrust – that is the registered charity (since 1963-07-01). Bookstart didn’t come about until 1992 when research commissioned by Booktrust found that children whose family had started them reading before they went to school did better. Yes, this sounds like a case of the bleeding obvious to me as well.

As obvious as it may seem, they still managed to persuade Sainsbury’s to give them money and eventually this brought them fame and fortune. Or, at least, the attentions of our unlamented former PM but Chancellor at the time Gordon Brown. In 2004 he decided to throw taxpayers money at the scheme in order to give ‘free’ books to children under the age of four. It was at this point that we can safely say that Booktrust stopped being a charity and became what is known as a fake-charity – or government quango.

Indeed their 2009 accounts show that the three programs they fund were granted almost £15 million from the taxpayer. This equates to over 95% of their income for that year. So what did we (the taxpayer) get for that money?

An awful lot of marketing material and self-promotion it seems.

  • 23,000 Best BookGuide to Picture Books were distributed in the Children’s Book Week packs to all primary schools, public libraries, school library services and teacher training institutions, plus 1,000 copies to independent bookshops;
  • 20,000 copies of the Rough Guide to Picture Books were distributed to Waterstone’s, and 70,000 copies to families with young children across the country, via Bookstart local coordinators;
  • The Big Picture Campaign was promoted at festivals including Edinburgh, Bath and Cheltenham;
  • The campaign raised the profile of illustrators, while promoting the art istic qualities and appeal of picture books to less confident parents.
  • We were pleased to receive continued DCSF funding for Everybody Writes, a partnership with the National Literacy Trust, and this year developed printed resources for primary and secondary schools with 8,000 brochures distributed. The website attracts on average 8,000 web hits per month.
  • Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen has been an excellent champion for children’s literature and the pleasures of reading. A 10th Anniversary event at the Festival Hall, attended by Michael and former laureates Quentin Blake, Michael Morpurgo, Anne Fine and Jacqueline Wilson, attracted several hundred children with their families.
  • Children’s Book Week 2008, launched by Michael Rosen and 200 children on the London Eye, followed by a writing event producing a giant poem “I spy with my little eye” was mentioned on BBC Newsround.
  • The 2008 Children’s Book Week resource pack, themed this year Rhythm and Rhyme, was sent to 23,000 primary schools, public and school libraries, and teacher training institutions.
  • The Booktrust school libraries leaflet continues to attract interest with 500 requests for extra copies.

There is something else, surely?

The Bookstart website tells us that ‘central funding from the taxpayer is only 25% of the retail cost of delivering Bookstart’ and that sponsors pick up the rest of the tab. It doesn’t, so far as I have been able to find, tell us who those sponsors are or how much they give but a crude extrapolation the 2009 accounts figure would suggest external funding to the tune of almost £45million. Not a small sum and one would hope that the ‘charity’ could – with some adjustments to its ambitions – cope on this alone. Or is it that the publishers of the books doled out via this program agreed to accept only 25% of the retail price as a gesture of goodwill? If so I’m sure the buyers at Amazon would like to hire the person who made that deal as even they haven’t managed to screw the publishers quite that much.

So what books do we get for that money? Those chosen by the ‘Bookstart book panel’ which is made up of book experts, librarians, health professionals and early years professionals. It doesn’t however name these kind professionals who I have no doubt have gone to great lengths to ensure that the nations children receive only the best.

The question though – and one I’m would guess that Michael Gove asked – is what is the point of this scheme? Those who want the best for their children taught them to read before it came along and will continue to do so after it disappears by making full use of the library service when the children were young and then buying them books or passing on items kept from their own childhoods as the get older. Those who don’t will leave it to the nursery or the school teachers who have for many years been the fall back for those parents who forgo their responsibilities.

I’m sure that it is the latter category that this scheme would have been after but if they weren’t going to teach their kids to read before hand, they certainly weren’t going to do so just because the state handed them some ‘free’ books. These are people who don’t see the point of formal education and until their minds change then this scheme, however noble in intention, is doomed to fail. Being a bookworm myself I applaud the sentiment behind it but I have no wish to see the taxpayer pick up the tab for a cause that should be funded through voluntary donations from corporations and philanthropists alone.

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