The Director of BookTrust Northern Ireland has described the announcement of cuts to the BookStart scheme as “very disappointing”. The scheme which has been running in NI for decades will no longer provide every baby with a reading starter pack containing two reading books.

Speaking to Ni4kids about the announcement, Director for Northern Ireland BookTrust, Chris Eisenstadt said that from today, any child born in NI will be “more worse off” than their peers in other parts of the UK. “Reading has so many benefits, especially from a young age and the Book Start Baby Programme provided children with a very crucial and early introduction to reading.

“Not every family will naturally sit down and read to their baby, so the programme provided a perfect nudge to help parents and babies attach and connect with each other.”

Approximately 42,000 to 48,000 books are distributed as part of the scheme to families in NI each year. The cost of the scheme is approximately £144,000 with half being match funded from the Department of Education (DE).

Chris continued: “I understand that the department are under massive pressures, but early years intervention is money well spent in the long term. Our research shows that children who academically do better are more likely to have been read to as a baby.”

Furthermore, Chris said he feels that it was “unfair” to civil servants to have to make this decision, as well as other decisions impacting on children here. “If there was a sitting executive in NI, I firmly believe this decision wouldn’t have been made.

“Every other region in the UK has managed to make sure money is found for this project, so it’s very disappointing the same couldn’t be done for babies here in NI.”

Back in 2016, the Book Start programme lost funding for four years and Chris is hopeful that funding will be found soon. Since June 2020, the Department of Education part-funded the BookStart Baby programme in NI. This allowed BookTrust NI to extend its delivery of BookStart Baby packs and books to all families in the region.

In August 2021, the Department of Education announced that it would be extending its funding of BookStart Baby to provide book packs to families with babies born in 2021. BookStart Baby packs are gifted to babies by their Health Visitor, usually at the 12-14 week or 6–9-month check.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education commented: “In light of significant budgetary pressures, the Department has made the difficult decision not to continue funding the BookStart programme in 2023/24. “We recognise how disappointing this decision will be for everyone involved in the delivery of this initiative. The Department would like to acknowledge the positive impact that the BookStart programme has had in the last three years, particularly during the Covid pandemic, and thank the team at BookTrust NI for their efforts in delivering the programme.”

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