Free baby book scheme set to end in Northern Ireland 'due to budgetary pressures'

A scheme which provides free books to babies in Northern Ireland is set to end "due to budgetary pressures", the Department of Education has said.

Under the BookStart scheme, more than 20,000 families were gifted packs by their health visitor at the end of the 12-14 week, or 6-9 month check.

The Department contributed £75,000 towards the delivery of BookTrust’s BookStart Baby programme in Northern Ireland in 2021/22.

This is not the first scheme previously offered by the Department to have funding cut.

In March of this year, it confirmed 'holiday hunger' grants will be stopped from 1 April.

On Friday Northern Ireland Director at Book Trust, Chris Eisenstadt, told UTV: "It this is a really important project.

"I think for some people it might seem a bit strange to be reading to very small infants who obviously in some cases can't even hold their heads up yet, but you develop brain development benefits, mental health benefits for both the child and the parent, attachment, interest and engagement.

"These things start from day one and early intervention, and you don't get much earlier than a baby, saves money and resources in the long run.

"Children who do particularly well at the end of primary school are twice as likely to have been read to by their parents as other children."

In a statement issued to UTV, the Department of Education said that the decision to end funding for the BookStart scheme is "disappointing". “In light of significant budgetary pressures, the Department has made the difficult decision not to continue funding the BookStart programme in 2023/24," the statement read.

“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 3 years, particularly during the Covid pandemic, and thank the team at BookTrust NI for their efforts in delivering the programme.”