Combatting social exclusion

Bookstart can help combat social exclusion
Bookstart can help combat social exclusion

Bookstart is a programme that is particularly well equipped to combat the effects of social exclusion.

Its effectiveness in improving the life chances of the disadvantaged stems from the unique nature of the product it promotes, its flexible approach to reaching its audience and the benefits of early intervention.

The joy of reading – a uniquely accessible message

The central message communicated by the Bookstart packs – the joy of stories – has universal appeal and, as a universal gift, it is non-stigmatising in the behaviour it seeks to nurture. Encouraging children to enjoy books is an uncontroversial ambition that is often embraced by families across cultural or class background. Bookstart further distinguishes itself as a user-friendly service by being non-selective in its targeting of families. Unlike those social services serving specifically the disadvantaged, Bookstart strives to have universal coverage, delivering book packs to every child in the country. In our experience families accustomed to receiving targeted intervention from social services welcome participation in a universal programme that does not highlight their differences with wider society. Parents in these situations welcome the book gift and often respond positively to the idea of being part of a community-wide initiative to encourage early reading. By communicating its message in these unifying and unthreatening terms Bookstart has been unusually effective in its outreach. Research and evaluation confirms that Bookstart has been successful in impacting many families who are alienated from mainstream institutions and therefore remain outside the reach of conventional social services. 

Flexible and innovative delivery

Bookstart is at its essence a partnership project that relies on the cooperation of local agencies to deliver the book packs and promote its message. The national organisation, Bookstart, organises the supply of packs to local areas but local delivery is managed by health, library and education agencies in each local authority. Coordinated partnership between the national organisation and local agencies is therefore crucial to effective delivery. Bookstart has worked hard to harness the benefits of the multifaceted nature of its organisational structure and make this feature contribute to a dynamic and effective delivery process.

The programme’s capacity for organisational innovation is evident throughout Bookstart’s structure.  As a non-governmental and relatively new programme Bookstart has benefited from the absence of entrenched bureaucratic structures. Organisation of the programme has therefore avoided the type of professional barriers that can sometimes constrain service delivery. From the outset Bookstart has been free to adopt innovative approaches to its own internal organisation and relationships with external partners.

The interdisciplinary nature of Bookstart’s remit has also encouraged effective practice in the delivery process. Bookstart’s mission to promote early reading is readily embraced by health, education and library services alike, encouraging effective collaboration across social service agencies. Under the supervision of central organisation, these local agencies have consistently demonstrated ‘joined-up’ practice to ensure that delivery both reaches as many families as possible and effectively communicates the message about early reading.  This locally-tailored system of distribution ensures that each scheme is able to respond creatively to the particular circumstances and needs of the area. Bookstart Development Managers work regionally and liaise closely with local agencies to construct the most effective delivery mechanism in that area for each of the book packs.

This mode of service delivery corresponds to the type of flexible, locally-sensitive model that has increasingly caught the attention of policymakers interested in tackling social exclusion. Small inter-agency projects have been identified as an effective alternative to centrally-directed government initiatives (Milbourne et al., 2003, Clarke, et al. 2000, Butcher, 1995). Research suggests that programmes like Bookstart that are tailored to the specific needs of different communities may be especially effective in engaging those alienated from mainstream channels of assistance (Giddens, 2002, Holman, 1999).

Bookstart’s aim to reach all children across the country gives special urgency to efforts to reach families beyond conventional forums and contact points. In this respect Bookstart liaises closely with relevant local agencies and charity groups to arrange specific delivery mechanisms for particular groups. For example, for accessing families with children with special needs, Bookstart works with the charity Home-Start. Home-Start home visitors deliver the book packs as part of their general home visit, providing a non-institutional mode of delivery that is knowledgeable of and sensitive to the family’s particular needs. Bookstart uses similar non-stigmatising modes of delivering for single parent families, homeless families, travellers families and children in care, working in partnership with voluntary organisations such as Portage and local authority ‘social exclusion’ agencies to arrange delivery. By harnessing the creativity and credibility of specialist organisations in this way, Bookstart manages to reach many disadvantaged families that would otherwise remain outside the reach of social services.

Benefits of early intervention

Like other early intervention programmes, Bookstart is an effective means of pre-empting or minimising problems of social exclusion. By encouraging early interaction with books, the Bookstart programme helps nurture children’s early development facilitating subsequent progress through school and into adulthood. Longitudinal studies of the impact of Bookstart have demonstrated how the programme has lead to an improvement of language and literacy performance upon school entry at the age of four, Foundation Stage. Tracking children’s performance up to their Key Stage 1 assessment at age seven studies show how Bookstart children maintain this advantage throughout their first five years of primary education. Mean scores for a range of literacy and numeracy tests showed Bookstart children outperforming their non-Bookstart counterparts by between 1 and 5% (Wade and Moore, 2000).  

Studies have yet to track the progress of Bookstart children beyond the primary years. Nevertheless, there is good reason to suggest that Bookstart is likely to yield the type of long term benefits for participants that studies have observed for other early intervention programmes. Moreover, evidence suggests that home-based initiatives are particularly effective in fostering developmental benefits. Where a programme such as Bookstart successfully encourages the adoption of a learning-friendly environment in the home, children are likely to develop and maintain strong language, literacy and numeracy skills (Sylva, et al. 2003). As with other learning programmes, the grounding provided by Bookstart is likely to give children an enduring advantage over their counterparts in their learning aptitude and ability to face challenges encountered in their adult lives. Longitudinal studies of pre-school learning initiatives, for instance, have demonstrated a link between the fostering of these skills and improved social behaviour. Studies of the High/Scope Perry Preschool project in the United States demonstrate its impact on reducing delinquency and participation in crime. Police and court records showed that programme group members averaged 2.3 arrests by age 28, significantly fewer than the 4.6 arrests averaged by member of the control group. Longitudinal studies also demonstrate a link between the improved early learning generated by these programmes and improved economic activity in the adult lives of participants. High/Scope, for example, generated significant economic gains for participants with 29% of the programme group reporting monthly earnings at age 27 of $2,000 or more, significantly more than the 7% of the control group who reported such earnings (Schweinhart, 2003). The fact that these results were generated in disadvantaged communities gives an indication of how effective early learning programmes can be in improving the life chances of those children most vulnerable to social exclusion. Like other early learning programmes, Bookstart is likely to yield enduring and wide-ranging benefits that help individuals to live fulfilling and productive lives.


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