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Britons urged to turn over a new leaf

National Year of Reading: Every baby to get a book as millions are put behind drive to raise levels of literacy
MINISTERS WANT to turn Britain into a nation of readers - with the help of television. Soap operas such as EastEnders, Coronation Street and Brookside will be used to promote the idea that reading is both essential and fun.

Everyone, from nine-month-old babies to 80-year-old pensioners, will be invited to take part in the National Year of Reading, which David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, launched yesterday.

He said: "This is a campaign for everyone. It aims to encourage parents, grandparents and friends to read and to get children to read and it is also about getting volunteers to be prepared to give a little time as mentors, both in and out of school."

Older people will also be given a chance to brush up their reading. Mr Blunkett said his own interest in reading had begun with the "politically incorrect" Biggles stories and Enid Blyton's Famous Five.

Then he read Jack London's White Fang and Call of the Wild. "It was inspirational. I loved the poignancy of it and the way he portrayed the best and most cruel elements of nature." Mr Blunkett announced an extra pounds 24m of money to pay for a pounds 1,000 book token for every school. It follows pounds 23m for books made available in January. Nearly pounds 60m will be spent on a new daily "literacy hour" in primary schools.

A pounds 1.8m television advertising campaign to encourage adults to read to children began last night and will run until the end of October. Last night's advertisement showed fathers reading with their children and was broadcast to coincide with the European Champions League match between Manchester United and Barcelona.

The need for a national year of reading is obvious, say ministers. In a recent survey Britain came third from the bottom in a literacy table of eight industrialised nations. According to the Office for National Statistics, 8.4 million Britons of working age (22 per cent) are incapable of comparing two pieces of information and one in four adults has very poor literacy standards.

Around 40 per cent of 11-year-olds are not reaching the expected standard in national tests in English. Particular efforts will be made to help boys, who lag behind girls in English throughout their school careers. Fathers will be encouraged to read with their sons and a month will be devoted to reading in sports, with the backing of Linford Christie and Alex Ferguson.

Parents will be able to obtain a free booklet of advice on how they can help their children to read by calling the freephone number 0808 100 50 60. Every baby will get a free book as part of a pounds 6m project funded by Sainsbury's in partnership with the charity Book Trust. The company is giving away 1 million books in a new national Bookstart programme.

In a pilot project begun six years ago with 300 Birmingham families, babies were given free books at their nine-month health check. Both their literacy and numeracy had benefited by the time they started school. Two years after receiving the books they were three times more likely to be interested in reading than those who had not taken part.

Other projects will aim to influence young adults. One will promote cult novels for 16-to-25-year-olds. Estelle Morris, the school-standards minister, said the improvement of literacy could not all be left to schools. "We need a culture change to make sure this country values reading in a way it has not done for many, many years."

Phil Redmond, executive producer of Brookside, said storylines including reading would feature in Brookside, Hollyoaks and Grange Hill during the year. He is keeping details secret but said a new family would be introduced into Brookside in November in which one member suffered from a reading disability.

The Conservatives attacked the use of soap operas. Peter Ainsworth, the culture spokesman, said: "This is an Orwellian nightmare which the viewer would find laughable and the licence-payer would reject as propaganda. What will we see next? Coronation Street used as a platform to promote the euro? Brookside as a vehicle for the New Deal?"

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the money was welcome and he expected schools would spend most of it on fiction for their libraries, which had been depleted by recent cuts. With discounts, that would mean about 200 new books for each school. "The challenge is to get children reading books in this age of computer games and wall- to-wall television."

Mr Blunkett said he would judge the success of the year by the shift in attitudes to reading. That might be measured by the number of books borrowed from libraries or sold in shops. Book sales had already risen since the Government began to highlight literacy problems, he added.

Leading article,

Review, page 3

Parents must teach reading,