New initiative offers a better start in life but this benefit does not have to be universal, says Jane Bradley
Every year, my daughter, now four, gets a nice present from a group of literary elves. It turns up at her nursery in a little jute bag just for her: three shiny picture books, a pack of colouring pencils, a CD of nursery rhymes and a notepad. She loves it.
These books are duly favourites at bedtime for a few days, then within a week are consigned to the back of the bookshelf along with the literally dozens of other brightly coloured tomes she owns - as well as the ten or so library books she constantly has squirrelled away, plus a couple borrowed from nursery. The pencils are used for a short while and then lost under the sofa as she returns to her favoured felt tips.
This scheme, the admirable Book Bugs initiative, funded by the Scottish Government, the NHS and Creative Scotland and put into practice by the Scottish Book Trust, is a lovely idea. For many Scottish children, it is possibly the only books they will be given that year and therefore a very necessary and welcome project.
The same will be true of the new Scottish baby boxes, which are being piloted this week in Orkney and Clackmannanshire, before being rolled out across the country in the summer.
Copied from the Finnish idea which has been running since the 1930s, the government-funded box gives new parents a basic starter kit for their newborn. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she hopes it will tackle inequality.
The box will include an ersatz Moses basket; a basic set of essential clothing, organic cotton muslin squares and a set of cot sheets. Among other things, parents will also get an ear thermometer; a bath towel and various recreational items such as a play mat and a book.
These boxes will be handed out to expectant parents by the health service in a bid to encourage expectant mothers to make use of midwifery services, enabling them to have ante natal checks which could pick up dangerous pregnancy related conditions, or problems with the unborn baby.
For some parents-to-be, this “encouragement” will be enough to send them scurrying along to their local GP surgery once they get the blue line on the pregnancy test, which will be a fantastic – and potentially life-saving outcome. Others, thankfully the majority of pregnant women, will have always planned to register. For some, sadly, it will make no difference.
But for plenty of would-be mums and dads – those who can afford the John Lewis Moses basket, the Mini Boden babygros and the top-of-the-range thermometer and have them all set up in the nursery in preparation of the new arrival - the box is a nice luxury, but not in any way likely to alter their child’s future.
Yet, the scheme is estimated to cost £6 million a year – not a small amount at a time when council budgets are being squeezed and doctors are warning of a crisis in the NHS.
According to charity Child Poverty Action Group, one in five children in Scotland is living in poverty. It is a sad fact, but these children will perform far worse in terms of development even in the early years, than their lucky counterparts from higher income households.
For them, there is no doubt that the basic kit could help improve their early months. The bright playmat could be welcome stimulation which will not be available from another source. The book may be read over and over again in the absence of any alternative. The safe place to sleep could be a lifesaver.
But for others – for the vast majority of the four in five Scottish children who are not living in poverty - it seems to be an indulgent use of state cash.
Like the baby box scheme, the Book Bugs initiative is available to all youngsters, regardless of family income. At that point, they can be collected from the health visitor. As the child gets older, they are distributed at nursery – or school, for the P1 bag. If the child is not in education of any kind yet, parents can go to the local GP surgery to pick them up. Which is where, I feel, lies the rub.
While the idea is absolutely admirable in its intent, for many children it is completely unnecessary – a nice bonus, a sort of Scottish Government Santa Claus scheme. Indeed, for my daughter and most of her friends, it will make little difference to their education – they have books. They have them coming out of their ears.
Yet, for those children whose parents have not put them in nursery, for those who are struggling to pay the rent or electricity bill or even put food on the table, a trip to the health visitor to pick up a book bag may not be top of the priority list. Hence, ironically, it could be those who most need it who could be missing out – and a more targeted approach could help here too.
Catriona Wallace, head of early years at the Scottish Book Trust, tells me that there are many reasons for the universal provision – they do not want poorer parents to feel singled out, which is important. Wealth, she adds, is also not an indication that a parent will read to their child – and in fact, many of the books provide focus on issues such as attachment and parent-child bonding, which is in no way linked to poverty. But in that situation, providing free books is not the solution. If a family has money, it is not the lack of access to useful reading material that is the barrier.
It is also true that buying the contents of the Book Bug bags – and similarly the baby boxes – has some economy of scale. Buying 10,000 of the same book will be far cheaper per unit than buying ten copies.
Yet some kind of means testing akin to the free school meals scheme, which would mean the books and boxes are only handed out to those children who need them, would surely be more economical than distributing them to every child in Scotland. Or even an opt-out for wealthier parents who feel the investment is wasted on them.
The aim of the Finnish boxes is to give children, regardless of their background, an equal start in life, which is an admirable idea. Distributing state funds to where they are needed, rather than through a blanket policy, would ensure that those who have a less advantaged beginning are given a much-needed leg up – not wasted on those of us who would regard it as a luxury rather than a necessity.