A project initiated by

BookTrust

“Reading is one of the ways to enable everything else to happen: a pathway to other cultural interventions and to interacting with the world.”

BookTrust was founded in 1921, primarily as a charity linked to publishing and literature in general, but more recently has increasingly focused on children, leading in 1992 to the creation of the early years programme Bookstart, through which books are gifted to under-fives across the UK. Diana Gerald has held the position of chief executive since 2015, leading a team of 70, a quarter of whom are based around the country, with the main office in London. Its turnover is just under £10m, although it receives very significant benefit in kind support through publishers in providing books to its programmes. Roughly 50% of its income is received from Arts Council England; it also receives funding from the Welsh government, and supplements this with private individual and corporate fundraising, and traded activities.

Mission: inspiring literacy by supporting families to read with their children

Recognising that BookTrust is “a slightly unusual arts organisation”, chief executive Diana Gerald has distilled the charity’s mission to make it “very simple. We’re all about getting children reading and supporting families to read with their children. We work with children of all ages, but our primary focus is children under five, so getting mums, dads, carers, grandparents, anybody to read with their kids.”

Before she arrived at BookTrust, Gerald worked in education, and saw first-hand “how much reading in the early years matters” in terms of later progress at school. Children who aren’t supported with reading from a very early age “turn up at school and they’re already behind. Whereas if their parents had a bit more support reading to their children, if we encourage parents who don’t have English as a first language to read to their child in Polish or Somali and get all that language going, it can make a real difference.” But the importance of reading reaches beyond education support: “It’s one of the ways to enable everything else to happen: a pathway to other cultural interventions and to interacting with the world.”

In some ways BookTrust has changed substantially since it was founded in 1921 by authors Hugh Walpole and John Galsworthy, publishers Stanley Unwin and Maurice Marston, and politician Harold Macmillan: not least in that it was several years before children were even on its agenda. As a publicly funded organisation since 1969, it has moved from the auspices of Arts Council England to the Department for Education and back; for many years it supported a number of prizes for adult literature, responsibility for which has been handed over to other institutions including University of Cambridge and New Writing North.

In other ways there has been a long consistency in its activities, especially since the establishment in 1992 of Bookstart, its main early years programme, through which new books are gifted to children and their families across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, soon after birth and in the year before starting school. This is where Gerald feels “we can make the most difference”.

The power of early intervention

BookTrust works with children of all ages – including in secondary schools in collaboration with librarians, through a programme designed to reach children in care, and via digital activities aimed at children over six – but increasingly its attention is dedicated to the zero to five age group, responding to a widening understanding that “the need for early intervention is really strong”.

“The need for early intervention is really strong.”

Working with health visitors, GPs, librarians and other community care professionals, BookTrust – through Bookstart – aims to do more than “just give out a book. We don’t just put the book in the post: it’s a moment of interaction. The gifting moment is the point when the professional talks with the parent about how they can read to the child, and the importance of reading with the child; it’s the element that encourages, supports and inspires.”

“The gifting moment is the point when the professional talks with the parent about how they can read to the child, and the importance of reading with the child; it’s the element that encourages, supports and inspires.”

In addition to its three universal resources packs distributed at the moment of gifting, BookTrust provides additional support through the programme Bookstart Corner to “75,000 families every year who are less confident in reading. There we work in partnership with children’s centres, who will support these families through four visits, to help them with ideas and tips that build confidence about reading with your child.”

National in scope, local in delivery

Working in partnership is critical to BookTrust’s ability to work nationally, while achieving “an individual interaction” with each child and family – that’s more than 700,000 babies each year. “We have regional managers in every region of England, a team in Wales and a team in Northern Ireland. And we have local partners in every single area, so we are providing a central resource and support.”

This model has “allowed us to have enormous reach and scale”, but also requires being “deeply committed. You have to cede power: we know our work won’t look identical everywhere in the country; we select the book but we can’t control exactly how the book-gifting moment will work.” For Gerald, this is fitting: “In some ways everybody cedes power: because when the adult sits down with the kid to read, the author may have written it one way but the child may perceive it another.”

Working with under-fives also requires that BookTrust is “passionately committed to adult literacy, because children will only read if they see adults reading.” Again, the partnership model is vital to its ability to address this: “For instance, we work very closely with the Reading Agency, who do a lot more around adult support, including amazing work with adults in prison.” And while “every charity has to focus on where they can add the most”, BookTrust operates on the principle that more can be achieved through collaboration.

“Children will only read if they see adults reading. For instance, we work very closely with the Reading Agency, who do a lot more around adult support, including amazing work with adults in prison.”

Challenges

In some respects, Gerald feels BookTrust is working in a time of opportunity. “It is a golden age of children’s literature in the UK: not only is the children’s book market growing by 25% a year, but the quality of what is being published is amazing. One can genuinely feel that every parent can access the right book for their child, whatever that book may be. And I don’t think the commitment across the political spectrum to the importance of reading with your children early has ever been stronger. We’re not having to make the case for that, and that’s fantastic.”

But this is also a time of austerity, and therein lie BookTrust’s challenges. On the one hand: “Times are tough for our parents, family lives are complex, people are very busy; we’re trying to help parents, to inspire grown-ups to read with children, when parenting has probably never been harder.” And on the other hand: “We work in a wider ecology, in partnership with local government, with voluntary communities, with schools, with health visitors, and all of them are under pressure – as indeed to some degree are publishers and authors and illustrators. So we have to work cleverly and efficiently with our partners to make it as easy as possible for them to do the work they want to do with us.”

“We’re trying to help parents, to inspire grown-ups to read with children, when parenting has probably never been harder.”

What next?

Thinking about the imminent future, Gerald has two key objectives:

1: Building evidence

“One of the commitments we’ve made in the organisation is to be really clear about being founded on evidence, for each different interaction, so that you know why you’re doing things.” Although Bookstart began with a random control trial, “evidence moves on all the time. We work in a field where there is an enormous amount of academic literature as well as real-world insight from talking to parents, so we’re gathering ever more evidence and using all of that to frame and understand how what we do is really important.”

2: Building fun

Of course, BookTrust will retain its “very serious mission, and focus on doing more and better for zero to fives while making sure that we use the power of digital to help parents and kids in older years” – but Gerald also believes “we need to make this fun. People read to their children for a number of different reasons, but on the whole it makes quite a difference if you feel that it is a fun activity.” It helps that “you can’t get that pompous with children’s books – we’re about bears and bees and counting rabbits”, but she still feels that fun is something BookTrust could usefully convey.

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