The spectacle of the government wriggling out of the Booktrust funding debacle was entertaining. It’s to be expected, I suppose, that after a long period of one-party government, the new boys won’t be too competent. To see them get it so wrong though - well, you have to laugh.
Anyway, since then a few right-wing commentators have started bleating in the newspapers about the decision. The points they made can be summarised thus:
- the government has given in to vested interests. Wealthy authors and publishers want their lush lifestyles to be subsidised by the tax-payer.Squillionaire novelists should fund the book-giving schemes.
- The government is weak, and accepts its orders from the chattering classes.
- it is ludicrous and unnecessary to give free books to middle class children. If free books are to be given at all, they should go to the proven poor.
- The government should not be involved in this kind of social experiment. It is the job of charity, and charity alone.
Taking these points in order. First, the vast majority of Booktrust’s funding comes from the publishing industry. Authors and publishers accept reduced royalties if their books are chosen for the scheme. The government’s funding is used to generate private contributions.
Most authors are far from wealthy. The average annual income for a children’s author is £5,000. Even the very few authors who are rich will most probably have spent years earning next to nothing before they achieve a reasonable income. And when they do, they pay their taxes.
This government and the last may be weak, but that comes from their lack of mandate and competence. They certainly do not accept their orders from the chattering classes. On the contrary, they seem to have very little interest in furthering the cause of reading among children. The Labour government installed a dull and unimaginative literacy programme in schools which raised extracts over real books. The Coalition is doing nothing to prevent the closure of many libraries. The government’s weakness in this case comes from its own ineptitude. If it had cut Booktrust’s funding by half and not allowed the news to dribble out just before Christmas, the impact of the outcry would have been decimated.
It may seem wasteful and unnecessary for state agents to hand free books to wealthy pampered middle class babies. Fine. If your health visitor offers you a free gift that you don’t need, just say no. Once those babies are starting secondary school however, their parents may well have lost their complacency about their reading habits. They think their child will keep their early love for books. They often find that they are wrong.
Actually, most parents I meet know diddly-squat about children and reading and still less about teens. Parents don’t know how to encourage their children to read, and they don’t know which books to buy for them. They employ tutors to encourage their children to read for pleasure - how strange is that? They didn’t grow up with the vast range of entertainment options that their children have, nor with the load of school work. Expect those smug columnists to be wringing their hands and begging for help weaning their child away from a screen in a few years’ time.
A universal gift of a free book at age 5 or 11 catches all those kids whose parents could buy them books but don’t, or those whose parents can’t afford to buy them books but don’t qualify for free school meals (I have been one of those parents and believe me, it is painful). Universality means there is no stigma attached to your free book, and it gets a classroom of children chatting about their choices. It introduces children to new authors, new genres, new ideas. If you believe in the nudge theory, as David Cameron is supposed to, it’s a nudge in the right direction.
How about the argument that the government should not be involved in schemes like this, that it is an initiative which should be purely funded by voluntary donations? If Cameron has a big idea, it is that the state should be rolled back to a few key functions. That ‘society’ should take its place. The burden on the taxpayer should be lifted, allowing people to choose where their money goes.
Is the government truly committed to rolling back state influence? It isn’t. When I read about civil servants at the Department of Education checking the curriculum choices of the new ‘free’ schools, or devising new phonics tests for the nation’s six-year-olds, I see the age-old hypocrisy at work.Ministers are all for cuts - unless it cuts their own influence.
I remember watching the party leaders debating before the election. I remember David Cameron saying that savings would be found from identifying wasteful practices in the system - massage suites for NHS managers was the example he offered. He did not stand for election with a message of ideologically based cuts to create a very different Britain. Nor was he elected with any kind of majority – thus the coalition. He is acting as though he won a landslide victory for his vision of government. He did not, and it is profoundly undemocratic to suggest that he does.
It may be that organisations such as Booktrust find they are better off operating without the interference of people like Cameron and Gove. That’s another question altogether.