Sunday 26 December 2010

Comment only when qualified - Bookstart

Bookstart. I am about to make myself very unpopular, but the following is based on my personal experiences, experiences entirely linked to where I grew up. Empirical evidence may be dodgy ground from which to shoot arrows but I think it's important so I'm going to shoot and be damned.

Bookstart on paper is a very lovely thing. There is evidence to suggest that reading books is a good thing (tm) and I'd be the first in line to defend to the absolute death the worth of books to people who want to learn and are bored to tears in school lessons. They are sanity giving escape portals, mind blowing many world thought provokers, they are laugher and light providers for people stuck, for whatever reason, in one place for a long period of time. I love books. Let me make this abundantly clear. I own 500 of the damn things, I collect them (feeble attempts aside), and I still loan books from libraries.

Where does this love of books come from?

My father loved words. He owned a home printing press and I learnt to spell using the tiny little metal sets of letters. My mothers attitude to learning consists of 'I left school at 15 because I had to, not because I wanted to, so books shall be where I make up the lost time, oh yes!' as she sails forth into the local library and systematically drains each section of every worthwhile book while consuming an amount of data which frankly terrifies me, before coming out the other side having taught herself psychology, neurology, astro-physics, German, French, Russian and shorthand. For fun.

If I hadn't grown up with a fierce love of books, there would have been something wrong. Really quite wrong. And in the grand scheme of things very many things were wrong but this was not one of them and for that I am actually seriously grateful. I'm proud to be retro in my love of books.

The respect for books as precious things, things to be taken very great care of was also imbued from an early age. Knowledge is precious, therefore the things which convey that knowledge are, by association, also precious. I didn't manage to mark a page by turning the corner of the paper down until I was at least 25, out of pure guilt. Books. An intrinsic and inseperable part of me, as a human being.

To give some quick context, the village I grew up in had 400 people in it. No girls were the same age as me, the closest was 3 years older than me. We lived in a row of Council houses, and the families to our right were not the families to our left, but the ones to our left were older, grandparents, and the ones to our right were young families. So to the right was where I spent all my time. The line, by the way, was real, but only 1pt. For the purposes of this post I am drawing it in 5pt.

I am trying to very hard to leave the dreaded c word out of this.

The children of the families to our right were my friends. I grew up with them, I roamed across endless corn fields on adventures to find the abandoned castle with them (yes it's real, yes, it's on a map, yes I could map read at 8, I am not making any of this up, we're talking about fiction, not creating it), I played on hay bales, fell out of trees with them, and generally caused utter havoc with them (the worst thing we ever did was steal some apples. Once. We got caught. There ended my criminal career). It sounds idyllic I suppose. It wasn't.

The children I hung out with didn't own books. They had no interest in owning books. They didn't bother with the mobile library which came to the village even though it got around the problem of having no car - the parents walked the 10 mile round trip to the local supermarket each Saturday. Their life was reduced down to very little. Earn money somehow, doing the odd bits of gardening and farmhand work, pay the bills, feed the family. We didn't have any money either, but my parents, because of their background, put a massive amount of focus on making sure our education was also right at the top of the priority list and so, as a result, books were acquired from charity shops and loaned from school and nabbed from the mobile library. And here is the fundamental problem that I have with the Bookstart programme. It makes an assumption of priorities of the parents of the children the books are actually aimed at. It assumes literacy of the parents - the link above to the Bookstart website is deliberately to their FAQ section which makes no mention of filtering recipients on that. It is quite clear to me that the programme is entirely well meaning, that on paper it's motivations are good, that behind that organisation are people who care passionately about sharing their own values of love for knowledge and books and reading.

But I wonder. I wonder how many of the distributed books actually get read. I wonder what the outcomes are and how they're measured. I wonder about the return on investment, because I have changed on some fundamental level and no longer believe that simply wanting to help people and do good things is enough. I hope I have built a post entirely on wrong assumptions. I hope someone can come and prove me wrong, tell me that these packs change lives, change priorities, encourage parents living day to day, on very little money, to push their childrens education right up to the top of the list. But I've got a horrible suspicion that they don't and they wont.

When you're too busy surviving, your field of vision narrows to the very essentials. Maslows hierarchy of needs seems to be coming in for some bashing of late. My personal experience means I will never be so bold as to dismiss. It is hard to care about things which looks like luxuries when the next bill has come through the door and all your focus is suddenly, by necessity, switched to how you're going to pay this one and what must be sold or given up or cancelled in order to do so. At times like that, books get sold, Christmas presents get returned and priorities are ground down to simply one.


  1. I don't know. Really don't. What is the impact of these schemes on target families? - i.e. not mine. We received bookstart books. I don't think we did anything with them. I'm very picky about children's books. The canvas bag is not completely useless - I think we sometimes use it to take swimming stuff to the pool. I can't remember which book even came with bookstart - it joined the massive pile of other children's books we have.

  2. It's the child benefit argument all over again, for me. Distribute something to everyone, including those that don't need or want it. In the midst of this, the top end of the curve are people like you, who don't need anyone to tell them the importance of books, because books are a part of your world. They're just there, you probably don't even think about it.

    At the bottom end of the curve are all the people simply can't or wont read. @inniebear on Twitter mentioned just now that people are simply asked 'do you want this?' - is any intervention or conversation instigated on a no answer? Because it should be.

    Then there's the audience in the middle who will receive gladly the books, use them, treasure them. How many are in that category and how much could we save by recalling the resource from the bottom and top end of the curve and using it to tackle the red flag scenarios? I've got no problem with the money being spent, how could I, just a problem, increasingly, with this scattergun approach.

  3. I could never get enough books. I read everything I could get my hands on. Now as a granny I don't bother much with them. Everything I need to know or want to read is online.
    I do like the odd trashy novel when I am removed from connectivity, but that's about it.
    My daughters/granddaughters are book fiends too. I think the second floor in my daughters house may collapse with the weight one day.
    My son once read part of 'the silver sword' at school, has never touched a book since apart from tractor magazines, and is now running his own business and employing 3 others. My husband and his father never read a book in their lives. Its horses for courses, and I personally don't think government should waste their time and our money giving books away. I do think that if someone wants to read they will, no matter how rich or poor they are, and the same in reverse. The same applies to computers. I don't think they should give free computers away especially to families who already have xboxes, sky dishes etc.
    As ever, only MHO but I am interested in everyone elses opinion too.


  4. I wonder if what's important about it is that it's not aimed just as the poorest? I don't think that it is just about how much money people have. In fact, I am sure that it is not about that but about knowledge, expectations, peer pressure, and aspirations.
    I remember being surprised to hear that a colleague and his wife had not yet bought books for their small child (at least 2 or 3 year old at the time). I gently suggested that it would be a good idea, they went and bought some books, and he soon reported that his child loved books. He was a middle manager. They had thought that one left giving a child books until s/he went to school and was formally taught to read.
    It is increasingly difficult for people not to learn to read adequately and hope to earn a living because there are fewer and fewer jobs that do not require reading ability. If the cost of a few books helps to prevent someone requiring state support all his or her life because they are unable to get a job, maybe it's worth it? Our society cannot afford ignorance.

  5. Chris> Received and understood. Literacy and numeracy are not necessary in order to succeed in the world (whatever success looks like, I suspect it looks different to different people). I think giving books away is a good idea if only because like Janet says, it's a 'nudge' for those who perhaps hadn't thought. But scattergun approaches seem to me a bit random in a world where there's no money, which we're told there is not.
    Janet> Thank you. It's interesting to me the value of nudge which is what you did, I think. Is it that nudge is just what's needed or is it the actual physicality of a book which is required.

    I think the thing I'm focusing on is that children don't teach themselves to read, someone teaches them. In the absence of interested parents (which you're absolutely right, is nothing to do with money really, I don't quite know why I thought it would be apart from person experience but common sense should have kicked in), who will that be? Would book clubs be better where parents could take their children and get some help with how to teach reading? Offered support instead of just a book and no associated assistance?

  6. I think it is a scatter gun approach, which, hopefully, might have an effect in some cases, but that's probably only ever going to be a minority. In an ideal world, it's worth doing though. The problem is, we don't live in an ideal world.

    I speak as someone who was allowed to join the adult section of my local library two years early because I had read all the books in the junior section. I didn't buy many books as a child, there was no need, the library was 5 minutes walk away. I probably could have afforded to buy some books, but nowhere near as many as I read from the library, and I may not have developed the voracious appetite for reading that the presence of the library enabled me to develop.

    And then I did an English degree which effectively killed the pleasure of reading book for me. But, then, that's another story.

  7. Damnit, I typed a huge response and Blogger ate it. I shall be briefer.

    As a parent, book lover and baby signing teacher passionate about early communication, I am *horrifed* Bookstart has been cut in such a cavalier way. Yes, it does need to be assessed for impact and sustainability as every project should be - but there is a chunk of research on their website you can start with which has results.

    I would like to point out that Bookstart *isn't* about learning to read. If it was, you wouldn't get books. You'd get phonics worksheets, and schools would expect children to be reading when they started (my daughter had the reading age of an 8yo when she started and the school panicked - they are not set up to deal with early readers!).

    Bookstart is about communication, about sharing time with parents/caregivers, it's about listening, about attention, about building confidence in talking about shared experiences (and with any luck, providing access to the library). The scattershot approach is NOT always a bad one: Bookstart has always been blind to income, class, race, religion and location: every kid got the same. They had a shared experience regardless of their home life. I am really saddened that my 5mo won't get to share that with her peers.

    In my opinion the failing of Bookstart is that it doesn't start early enough.

  8. Update: it looks as though Bookstart may be reprieved - at least temporarily: