Do we need a commercial break?

Campaigners call for tighter controls as schools become increasingly reliant on cash from big business. Jon Slater and Julie Henry report

Mike Cameron, a high-school student, became something of an international celebrity when he was suspended for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt during a "Coke in Education" day.

His school was taking part in a competition to produce the best marketing campaign to promote the fizzy drink. Executives of Coca-Cola were in attendance and were, in all likelihood, none too impressed.

This incident happened four years ago on the other side of the Atlantic where business influence in schools is much greater than in the UK. But campaigners warn that schools in Britain are in danger of following their counterparts in America and that Government policies make schools increasingly reliant on the corporate shilling.

Some headteachers, seeing potential financial benefits for their schools from business, have become virtual salespeople.

"When my child's school collected Walkers crisps tokens, a letter was sent home from school that said, 'So it's crisps for breakfast, dinner, and tea! Let's see how many new books we can collect this year'. It came from the headteacher," complains a parent from Stourbridge in the West Midlands.

The crisp promotion, in which parents are encouraged to collect tokens from packets which their schools can exchange for books, is a particular bug-bear among campaigners.

The Food Commission's 800-strong parents' jury recently placed the company just behind fast-food giant McDonald's in its ability to create unwanted "pester power".

Despite that, the scheme was publicly backed by both Tony Blair and former Education Secretary David Blunkett, as well as by The Sun and The Times - stable-mates of The TES.

Nestle is another company whose collection schemes cause problems for schools. Not in this case because of the nutritional value of the cereals which have to be bought for the "Box Top" tokens, but because of the wider concerns about Nestle's promotion of baby-milk formula in developing countries. Many parents have joined the international boycott of the company's products and have demanded that their children's schools withdraw from the Nestle scheme.

Ministers see closer links with business as a way to boost schools' budgets and they want private-sector management techniques to rub off on education leaders.

But there are also purely educational reasons for the policy. For new Labour, education is about improving young people's "life chances". Translated this means giving them a better chance of gaining a decent job. What better way to do this than to make their schooling more relevant to the world of work?

The Government has gone to great lengths in pursuit of this goal. And, despite muttering from sceptics who predicted that few companies would commit precious cash to schools, they have been largely successful.

More than a third of England's secondary school pupils are now in specialist schools - each of which has raised at least pound;50,000 from the private and voluntary sectors.

The total raised from business by such schools since 1997 is close to pound;50 million. It is easy for sceptics about business involvement in education to overlook the fact that companies have a legitimate interest in what goes on in schools. For years, business leaders have complained that schools were like mini ivory towers where learning was divorced from the real world and that children were not taught the skills industry needs.

Although arguments persist about the goal of education, most schools can no longer be accused of being divorced from the business world.

From IBM-sponsored computer suites to Nike sports parks, business logos are increasingly visible in our schools.

There is a bewildering array of different curriculum materials provided free of charge to companies trying to show that they, too, are "putting something back" into the community.

But, much as ministers may wish it otherwise, many companies do not view schools just as the educators of their future workforce or a chance for altruism. They also see a fantastic marketing opportunity.

The cosmetics industry produces science worksheets about skincare, the Meat and Livestock commission produces recipes for home economics lessons (without vegetarian options) and Jazzymedia has given brands such as Vimto and Adidas the chance to put their marketing message on the front of pupils' exercise books.

The major high-street banks were recently criticised by MPs on the Treasury select committee for their activities in schools. Ostensibly, helping teenagers to understand their finances and the banking system, they have been unable to resist using their access to sell accounts to pupils.

Other initiatives focus on improving a company's image. Environmentalists may see the car as one of the world's biggest polluters but BMW presented a friendlier face when earlier this year it sent a video on clean energy for use in science and citizenship lessons to all UK secondary schools.

Even public-sector organisations are getting in on the act. The Army has produced a free programme which uses soldiers' experiences in Kosovo to teach about human rights.

Pete Stevenson, head of Exeter Road primary, in Exmouth, Devon, was criticised for wearing a CND badge when Afghanistan was bombed, but argues it is up to teachers to present citizenship in a balanced way.

"If the Army information was introduced alongside Amnesty International information, for instance, it would generate an interesting debate," he says.

But with England's education system more dependent on private cash than at probably any time since the Second World War, campaigners are increasingly worried that schools are being compromised.

The impact on children's diet is of particular concern. The number of obese under-16s passed the one million mark last year. Yet despite the introduction of nutritional guidelines for school dinners, messages reinforcing unhealthy eating abound in schools.

Many schools earn a significant income from fizzy drinks vending machines and in some there is little choice.

"In a school I know the only place that pupils can get water to drink is in the toilets and they are in such bad repair that people avoid them. But they have vending machines where children can buy fizzy drinks," says Charlie Powell of the Food Commission, an organisation which campaigns for healthy eating. He also complains of alphabet posters sponsored by fast food outlets where "M is for McDonald's".

"Many of the materials are quite subtle. Sometimes it is not easy for teachers to spot the commercial message, let alone the kids," he warns.

The Government has endorsed guidelines produced jointly by the Consumers'

Association and advertisers association ISBA which are intended to help schools decide whether commercial activities - ranging from vending machines to curriculum materials to collector schemes - are in the interest of their school (see box).

But Patti Rundall of Baby Milk Action, an organisation which campaigns against "inappropriate" commercial activities in schools, argues that these are insufficient and that the latest guidelines produced last year have been watered down.

She points out that the previous version produced by the National Consumers' Council in 1997 said that logos should be used "solely for sponsor identification". The updated one merely requires that branding "should be appropriate to the level of activity".

The rules on the promotion of an unhealthy diet and on explicit sales messages have also been diluted, she adds. While the old guidelines raised the question of whether an unhealthy diet was being promoted, the new rules refer only to "unhealthy, unsafe or unlawful activities".

"Unfortunately the guidelines send a signal to business that the ball is in their court - that civil society not only expects, but relies on businesses to improve practices and behave responsibly voluntarily," Ms Rundall says.

"Seeing through the spin", a pack designed to help schools balance corporate messages, is available from Baby Milk Action.

www.babymilkaction.org International, 20

KEY QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE USING

* Do the educational benefits outweigh the disadvantages?

* Does the activity add educational value to the curriculum?

* Is it free of incentives for children to engage in unhealthy, unsafe or unlawful activities?

* Has the business clearly stated its purpose in producing the activity?

* Is the activity based on accurate and currentinformation?

* Are any expressions of opinion clearly distinguished from statements of fact?

* Is the activity as free as possible of explicit sales messages?

* If the activity requires specialist resources, was this made clear to you from the outset?

* Does the activity respect diversity of gender, race disability and cultural issues and reflect contemporary UK society?

* Is the level of branding and logo use appropriate to the activity?

* Has the programme been developed with educators and piloted with teachers and pupils?

* Is the activity relevant?

* Has the business sought permission before forwarding the materials to your school?

* Can you engage in the activity free from unreasonable restrictions or conditions?

* Is it clear who the sponsor and target audience are?

For collector schemes

* Do the overall benefits of your collector scheme outweigh the costs to pupils and parents?

* Are the terms and conditions of the collector scheme available to you before registration?

* Is the product involved one which you are content for the pupils and parents to use?

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