Books to be given to every toddler

The phenomenal success of the Harry Potter books will be cited as evidence that there is a "resurgence" in children's reading habits when Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, launches the initiative this week.

To wait until a child is old enough for the adventures of the boy magician, however, is to leave it too late to instil a love of reading, she says. Her department is spending £7m on a campaign to give every child in England a bag of books before the age of three.

Over the next three years, the independent charity Booktrust, funded by the Government, will distribute 4.5 million book bags and nine million books, via health visitors, the state-run Sure Start centres, children's libraries and other outlets.

A new baby should get a canvas bag, usually at the health visitor's eight-month check. In it will be two baby books, a nursery rhyme placemat, a booklet for parents on sharing stories with young children, a Sure Start leaflet, a book list and an invitation to join the local library.

Children aged between 12 and 24 months will get a satchel-style bag, two books, a scribble pad and crayons, a book list for toddlers and a library invitation. The pack will be designed to encourage the child to start writing.

Children aged three to four will get a "treasure chest" - a box designed to appeal particularly to young children, with hidden compartments for small toys or books. It will contain two books, an activity book and a scribble pad and coloured crayons to encourage early writing.

Ms Kelly said: "A love of reading is having a resurgence but we can't wait until 'the Harry Potter phase' to get parents and their children to share the passion.

"All the evidence shows us that children whose parents are engaged in their learning do better at school. Every child deserves the best start in life and there is no better time to get parents into the habit of reading with their child than when they are little."

After launching the Book Start scheme by handing out book bags at a London Sure Start centre on Tuesday, she will tell the Institute for Public Policy Research that initiatives such as Sure Start are a vital way of helping low-income families to improve their circumstances.

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