Monday, 27 December 2010

Can the government be trusted to protect Booktrust?

If you look out of the window you might just be able to spot on the frosty roads the strip of smoking rubber that is always a sign of a government that has made a rapid u-turn in the face of public protest.

The u-turn in question came about following the announcement by the UK government on 22nd December that it planned to withdraw the £13million grant given to Booktrust, a charity that provides free books and help with learning to read for children across England.

Within hours of the announcement being made leading voices from the literary world had rallied to the cause of protecting Booktrust from the dead hand of government cuts. Philip Pullman called plans to cut its funding ‘an unforgivable disgrace’; former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion called the plans ‘an act of gross cultural vandalism.’ There might have been more than a touch of hyperbole in their denunciations, but when the literary elite speak government listens, within days the plans had been put on hold, or at least it seems like they have.

In a statement released yesterday the Department for Education said that it would ‘continue to Booktrust’ and its book giving programmes. Although the funding for the current scheme runs out in April 2011 a spokesperson said they were working closely with Booktrust to ‘ensure every child can enjoy the gift of books’ and to develop an ‘even more effective way of supporting disadvantaged families to read together.’

It is hard not to agree with Philip Pullman when he says he is ‘relieved’ that the light of common sense seems to have penetrated the murky depths of government policy on this issue. As he so rightly says making sure children have access to books is an ‘important national responsibility’ easily equal to making sure they have adequate health care and enough to eat.

The problems arise when you stop feeling relieved and start asking practical questions about what happens next. Warm words, something the current government has a knack for producing, do not equate to useful action.

The first problem is the lack of a definite figure for how much funding will be available to Booktrust from April onwards. Chief Executive Viv Bird told the BBC that the charity has made ‘every possible saving’ and through support from the publishing industry has been able to generate £4 for every £1 provided by the government.

Sensible management is a bonus but the nagging question remains, just how much will the government hand over in cold hard cash? Less than the £13million previously given to Booktrust for certain, meaning painful cuts may still have to be made. Can a publishing industry being squeezed by shrinking profit margins make up the shortfall? Maybe; but I wouldn’t bet the bookshop on it.

There is also the small matter of what this tells you about the government’s approach to making cuts to public spending. Equating the abortive scrapping of the funding for Booktrust with the plans to stop funding school sports that caused a similar u-turn before Christmas Labour leader Ed Milliband called the plans a ‘mean minded decision made without consultation or regard for the consequences.’

There lies the rub, on this issue and so many others the government seems to have put a short term desire to balance the books and a misguided faith in change for its own sake ahead of the reasoned and long term approach that is the only sure foundation of good governance.

At a time when Britain is falling behind in educational terms many of its competitors in Europe and Asia giving the next generation the best quality education we can afford could well be the difference between prosperity and disaster. Developing literacy and then learning to value reading, not always the same thing as some of the outcomes from the last government’s troublesome literacy hour demonstrate, is the foundation of all educational achievement.

Letting an inexperienced government imperil the chances of our young people learning to read because they themselves only ever read the bottom line of a balance sheet isn’t just an act of ‘cultural vandalism’; it could be economic suicide.
Wikinut, Monday 27th December 2010.

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