Bookstart was launched three years ago in response to concern about reading standards and the dominance of television. Some children were arriving at school not even knowing how to handle a book. Free books, such as The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, and poems were distributed to more than 300 new parents, together with tips on reading and library membership.
The scheme was based on an American project, but whereas the US venture targeted the unemployed and blue-collar workers, the British did not assume that only low-income families would benefit. Middle-class parents who were both working, they argued, could also be failing to share books with their children, not through lack of purchasing power, but through ignorance and mistaken priorities. They might be restricting sharing books with their children to a story at bedtime, for instance, whereas it should be an activity that is integrated as part of the whole day.
Nearly 15 per cent of school-leavers and adults have limited literacy skills. One in a 100 can properly be described as illiterate, according to the National Commission on Education.
Bookstart in Birmingham was initiated by the Young Book Trust (then the Children's Book Trust) in co-operation with Birmingham library services and local health authorities as a one-off "catch them early" intervention.
Evidence that such an intervention can have a profound effect has emerged in work carried out by Dr Barrie Wade, reader in English in Education at Birmingham University, and Dr Maggie Moore, senior lecturer at Newman College, Birmingham. Their preliminary findings are impressive. Questionnaires sent to more than a hundred of the Bookstart families after six months revealed that the pack had led to increased sharing of books with babies, more family reading generally, more babies enrolled in libraries, and increased book purchase and membership of book clubs.
"Many low-income families said they had been afraid to join libraries for fear that their babies would damage the books. Inviting them to join overcame that obstacle," says Dr Wade. "We found Bookstart was also effective in kindling a new interest in books and an awareness of their importance in better-off families."
Drs Wade and Moore then sought concrete evidence of long-term benefit. With the help of the health authority, they selected a control group of parents whose children were born at the same time as the Bookstart children, by now approaching three, and compared them with a random sample from Bookstart. Both groups had similar ethnic/socio-economic mixes. A total of 57 infants took part, 29 from the control group, the rest from Bookstart.
The families, who were told they were taking part in a study of home activities, were interviewed intensively at their homes. They were asked to talk about their child's interests and observed sharing a book with their child (Rosie's Walk, by Pat Hutchins). The interviews covered such issues as the buying of presents, and how often children engaged in activities such as watching television, playing with toys or going for a walk. Around a fifth of families from both groups said watching television was a high- priority preferred activity. But immediate differences emerged over attitudes to books:
Nearly a third of those questioned listed looking at books as high priority - most of these from Bookstart families (14 out of 17). Two-fifths of all families gave looking at books low priority - mostly non-Bookstart parents (19 out of 24).
Three-quarters of Bookstart families listed giving books as presents high priority (first or second place). One in 10 of the non-Bookstart families gave books the same ranking. More of the control group listed sweets as a high-priority gift.
More than half of Bookstart families took their child to the library, against less than a quarter of the control group.
More than two-thirds of Bookstart parents said they shared a book with their child every day, while the remainder of the group shared books at least two or three times a week with their children.
Only two-fifths of the control group shared books with their children every day. Some parents did it only once a week, some said they never did.
Dr Wade is excited about the results: "We are only half-way through the analysis, but the findings do give a fairly good indication that this one-off intervention is not a one-off experience. It could lead to significant lasting gains.
"The children we observed responding to a story appeared able to concentrate more. They were more actively involved in learning, they wanted to turn the pages themselves. They asked more questions, there was a far greater interaction."
Bookstart has captured the imaginations of librarians across the country, with schemes now operating in Sussex, Hertfordshire and the North-east. Dr Wade says the debate should focus on future improvements and how they can be achieved. The child's first five years, he says, are crucial to this process. "We know from previous studies that up to 42 per cent of adolescent boys choose not to read, not because they cannot, but because they don't want to. We have to instil motivation - but it cannot be forced, reading has to be a pleasure."
'Now Abby is very aware of books; she knows what she likes'
'She started trying to turn the pages. That was an important moment'
I would never have tried her on anything so advanced as Bookstart'
Leigh Thornton, 23 (above, with Abby, 19 months) lives on a council estate in Sunderland. Her husband, Robert, 28, is a factory worker who is studying for an Open University degree. Abby is Leigh's first baby.
"I am not a reader myself, but I want Abby to be one, because it will open doors for her. I don't know why I'm not into it, I just don't have the concentration skills. I will read the paper, but not a book. I prefer to watch a good film. Sometimes I feel I am missing out, so I want Abby to get pleasure from books.
"I heard about Bookstart at my local health clinic when I took Abby for her hearing check when she was eight months old. Then I got a card through the door asking whether a member of the library staff could visit me. Inside were these leaflets and a Roald Dahl book with a lion on the front, a book where you look behind the doors, and rhymes.
"I wasn't sure at first, because I thought the books would be too difficult for someone as young as Abby, but when we gave it a try she loved it. Perhaps it was the tone of my voice as we played with the book which had doors. I was saying 'What's behind the doors Abby?' then 'Boo', and she was chuckling away.
"She started trying to turn the pages herself. That was an important moment. She had learnt that books went from left to right.
"Abby's development is very important to me. Before Bookstart I was getting her toys from the Early Learning Centre and some baby books, but I would never have tried her on anything so advanced as the Bookstart pack until she was perhaps two. The fact that she took to more challenging books aged nine months surprised me.
"Now Abby is very aware of books; she knows what she likes. My mother bought her one about feelings, with a bear crying and a child laughing. She really favours that.
"I always supervise her with library books, although she is not destructive. She knows the difference between her books, which she handles nicely, and my catalogue, which she will rip given half the chance.
"We spend about 20 minutes a day, every day, sharing a book. Her dad sits with her too. I think she is really coming on as a result; her vocabulary and concentration skills are very good. She loves to take part in reading the story and tell you what is happening.
"I left school at 17 - I don't think I am very clever, but I would like Abby to go to a good school and university. Reading will be important if she wants to get on."