Education Quandary

Will handing out free books to all babies give children a better start at school?
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The Independent Online

At first glance the Government's plan to hand out £27m of books seems a great idea. Books are good news. Why not encourage every pre-schooler to love them? At second glance it seems naive in the extreme. Free books to households that already have plenty will be a waste of money. And free books to homes that have no time for reading are likely to end up kicked beneath the sofa.

The truth probably lies between the two. The scheme aims to boost children who will struggle at school. But books alone cannot transform the illiterate into the literate. However, books as tools for parents to interact with their babies and toddlers, to talk to them, read to them, and help them become familiar with both the spoken and the written word are a very different kettle of fish.

Research shows that parental interest is a key ingredient of school success, and research on small-scale baby-book projects shows that free books do have an impact on children's progress in primary school.

But these things are clearly linked. The impact of free books is greatest when the books are coupled with support groups which encourage struggling parents to learn how to read with their children. And there seems no doubt that it is this parental attention that is the key which helps unlock the secret of language for children.

Already babies less than a year old get free books under the Bookstart scheme. Now older pre-schoolers are to get packages of books, crayons and scribble pads.

But without additional - and, yes, expensive - human support this literary largesse could turn out to be just a political gimmick.

Readers' advice

When my children were babies (they are now in their twenties) the health visitor had goodie bags from various organisations such as food manufacturers to dispense to babies. If such bags still exist, perhaps they should be conditional on the inclusion of certain approved books, thereby passing the cost from Government to corporations.
Sue Brown, Cheltenham

I've taught reception-class children in difficult parts of both Coventry and London, and know that free books are not what these children need. They are often much too hungry for time and attention to sit down with a book. They need playing with, singing to, even rocking and cuddling, before they are ready to start reading. The Government needs to educate parents to give their children these basics before giving out books. We, the teachers, can't do it. We are expected to make children read no matter what state they come to us in, and blamed if we fail to.
Jo Eisterhaus, London W14

Surely we already have free books? They are in libraries the length and breadth of the country. When I was little my mother walked me to the library every Friday and I took out five books from the children's section. It was the highlight of my week, and I was reading fluently before I went to school.
Margaret Smeedly, York

Next week's quandary

What should the Government do about all the independent Islamic schools that seem to be spreading a separatist message? Should it encourage them into the mainstream of British schooling? Or ban them, as so many of them seem to preach hatred? Wouldn't it then have to ban all faith schools, on the ground of equality and fairness?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 15 August, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor,Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser.