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Maths scheme takes the biscuit;News;News and opinion

Pupils collect vouchers from junk food and schools get equipment. Karen Thornton on concern over the ethics of such schemes.

A COMPANY expects to make pound;42 million by encouraging children to eat its biscuits and crisps in exchange for offering schools maths equipment.

United Biscuits invested pound;15m in the Maths Stuff for Schools scheme, launched this term with an endorsement from Education Secretary David Blunkett.

The scheme encourages teachers, parents and pupils to collect tokens from national newspapers and United Biscuits' products including McVities biscuits and cakes, and KP Hula Hoops and Skips.

Schools exchange the vouchers for maths equipment, ranging from set-squares and number-lines to calculators and computers. A computer requires 50,000 vouchers - the equivalent of purchasing around pound;15,000 worth of 30p snacks. Around 40 per cent of UK schools are thought to have signed up to the scheme.

But a senior figure in United Biscuits has admitted success depends on the "pester-power" of children, nagging their parents to buy branded products. And he has suggested that regulation may be needed to deal with the current "plethora of initiatives".

Speaking at the Education Horizons Metropolitan conference in London, Alan Coates, United Biscuits' community affairs director, said that - thanks to pester-power - the company expected another pound;42m in sales this year.

"Children come back from school and say please buy something you wouldn't have bought. Whether that's ethical or moral is another debate," he said.

"We would be wrong in industry to pretend there wasn't a commercial element to what we might be doing. The reality is more of this activity is beginning to happen.

"Picking up the tab are teachers collecting and processing the tokens. We might need to use agencies such as Industry in Education to regulate it a bit better."

The Consumers' Association said it is seriously concerned, about such schemes, and wants a code of practice for companies and guidance for schools.

Juliet Wells, the association's consumer education officer, said: "We are concerned that schools are being used to allow access to vulnerable consumers, to encourage kids to go home and pester their parents. The companies involved get far more out of it than the schools do.

But ministers are keen to encourage business involvement in schools. When Maths Stuff was launched, in September, Mr Blunkett described it as "an excellent example of how business can support schools".

Details about the scheme can be found on the web at http:www.mathsstuff4schools.comindex.html

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