As every head of department who has been inundated with reply-paid cards and flyers from commercial companies knows, the choice of sponsored educational material is bewildering: videos, CD-Roms, activity-packs, posters, wall-charts, fact-sheets, leaflets, books, games and all sorts of curriculum-related education packs and resources.
Industry now spends around Pounds 300 million a year on educational sponsorship (there are more than 5,000 different resources available for technology alone) aimed at raising brand profiles and strengthening links between business and education. In many cases there is also a genuine desire to encourage interest in a particular subject, and to contribute to the community by providing schools with low-cost, high-quality classroom aids.
With most schools' resources stretched to their limits, there's no denying that these products can be a boon to the busy teacher, especially when they are relevant, attractive and easy to use. The obvious danger, however, is that they tend to target school children with a subtle - or blatant - marketing message.
In the United States, the link between commerce and the classroom is an accepted fact of life. Pupils are bombarded with advertisements on the school bus, on school noticeboards and on school radio and television programmes. To prevent the same thing happening here, the National Consumer Council (the independent voice of consumers in the UK) last year issued some new Guidelines on Sponsorship in Schools, designed to encourage schools to be watchful and to discourage the production of worthless, or biased, educational material and packs that are plastered with logos.
According to the guidelines, the basic criteria for a worthwhile resource are that it should be clear who the sponsor is, that the educational value should outweigh the marketing message and that the information should be balanced, up to date and relevant to the curriculum and age-group. It should also have been tested for use in schools, be free of gender, race and other stereotypes, and not encourage children to eat an unhealthy diet, take part in unsafe activities or buy a specific firm's products or services.
When the NCC measured a random sample of sponsored resources against the guidelines, it found that, while many passed with flying colours, others didn't. For example Kellogg's Energise at Sunrise pack listed Kellogg's cereals by name in the generic group of bread and cereals, as if no other cereals existed. Similarly, The Right Start, an otherwise useful resource produced by the Halifax, recommends "if you're unsure about any aspects of your money or accounts, call into your local branch of the Halifax Building Society" and informs pupils that "a Halifax Cardcash account is ideal if you're working part time".
Education and Youth, a company which specialises in producing educational resources on behalf of the armed forces, the Inland Revenue and companies like BP, BMW and Southern Water, is launching a new BMW pack, Quality, on its Education Show stand. Developed in collaboration with the Design and Technology Association, it explores the theme of quality in design and technology for 14- to 16-year-olds.
Although the company logo is on every page and much of the information is based on BMW manufacturing practice, it is nevertheless a top-of-the-range education pack that not only addresses such issues as how well a product meets a need, and how quality is related to manufacture and maintenance, but also examines the aesthetic, cultural, economic, environmental, moral and social dimensions of quality. Like every other Education and Youth resource, it was conceived, tested and evaluated by teachers. This, according to the company's education manager, David Wright, is the secret of EY's success.
"I believing in locking a group of suitable qualified people up in salubrious surroundings for a weekend, and not letting them out until they've argued their way through to a brilliant idea," he says.
After this initial brainstorming session, each project is developed by a team of writers and designers, who continue to liaise with educational advisors throughout the production process. The object of the exercise, Wright stresses, is not to get people to drive BMWs, but to produce a top quality design and technology resource which will also associate BMW with the concept of quality. "Our job is to work alongside industry and commerce, in association with the education sector, to produce something valuable to all concerned."
The same criteria were applied to the popular Teamwork Map Pack, a key stage 4 geography resource produced on behalf of the army. There's an army logo (a union jack and the slogan "Be the best") at the top or bottom of every page, but this doesn't put off Colin Lowrey, head of geography at Birmingham's Waverley School, who describes the Isle of Purbeck map and the photo pack as "manna from heaven". He adds: "A lot of thinking has gone into linking the maps, photographic evidence and topic cards. I couldn't care less if it says 'army' in the corner - it's just what I needed to teach coastal geography for GCSE, and it's free!" Pedigree Petfoods education centre's Pet Pack is an attractive cross-curricular resource designed to encourage children to take an interest in every aspect of pets and their care. Written in close consultation with teachers, it covers the needs and characteristics of dogs, cats and other pets in a clear, bright way and is full of suggestions for projects and activities.
Pedigree was among the companies criticised by the NCC for plugging its products Whiskas and Chum in a Duke of Edinburgh Award Pack, but it has to be said that the Pet Pack is a model of marketing restraint - there are no plugs and the logos are very small.
"We do strive to make sure everything is balanced," says Jessica Green of the Pedigree Petfoods education centre. "Our message is that a healthy pet is a happy pet and we do genuinely want to put something useful into schools. " A small charge (from Pounds 1 to Pounds 5) is made for Pedigree's curriculum resources, and a CD-Rom, The World of Pepper and Poppy, costs Pounds 39. But all support materials are free.
Dave Couling, of Castle Donnington College, who has used the Pet Pack for his Year 6 PSE lessons, considers the material generous and thorough. "It's been produced by people who know what they are doing, and, for a very low cost, the kids are getting some decent artwork in front of them. They don't splash Pedigree all over it; in fact the children may not even realise it comes from them as the logo is not on the worksheets.
"If sponsored material suits what you want to do in the classroom, then you use it. Teachers are independent, they like what they like and if they don't, they bin it. Companies who pay thousands of pounds to print so-called educational material that's been cobbled together by publicity people amaze me, because it all gets binned."
The nature of the product that a company manufactures is clearly crucial to any assessment of their sponsored resources. Cadbury's, for example, produces well-designed packs for children of all ages, which fulfil many important criteria as they are curriculum-related and developed by teachers. But classroom resources are only part of Cadbury's educational programme. The company also supports projects at schools near the Cadbury's site, offers work experience and sponsors out-of-school clubs. Nevertheless, it's all very heavily linked to promoting chocolate, which can spoil your appetite, rot your teeth and make you fat!
Although it would be naive to expect commercial companies to produce educational material that didn't put their products in a good light, in many cases the marketing message is subsidiary. Both Shell and British Nuclear Fuels produce a number of highly-praised science, technology and other resources. Shell is particularly proud of The Police Box (Pounds 40) produced jointly with the Grampian Police and Grampian education department, which deals with issues such as bullying, law and order, safety, substance abuse, and also includes a European awareness pack, Europe in the School.
One of BNFL's most successful primary resources is The Young Detectives, developed in conjunction with the Royal Microscopical Society, which encourages children to examine "evidence" such as fingerprints, footprints and fibres under a microscope. The pack includes a video, computer programme, book, worksheets, posters, magnifying glass, all for just Pounds 14.95.
Though its Energy and the Environment pack was criticised by the NCC for not being totally frank about the disadvantages of nuclear energy, BNFL says that it has had no complaints from the thousands of teachers who have requested this resource. BNFL charges from Pounds 1.50 to Pounds 14.95 for its packs.
CATIE (the Cosmetic and Toiletry Industry Educational Trust) produces some good, free resources with no logos at all. Face Facts for 7-11-year-olds explores the history of cosmetics; The Feel Good Factor is a bright and clear PSE resource for key stages 3 and 4; Face Value is a GCSE Integrated Science project.
The Body Shop has done some sterling work aimed at changing popular perceptions of bodily beauty, and, in particular, at discouraging young girls from developing eating problems. Its campaigning, free magazine, Full Voice, celebrates age and physical diversity (four future issues will focus on political consciousness, freedom of sexual expression, spirituality and community). The magazine includes a tape on which pupils are invited to record their own opinions of these issues as part of a Body Shop survey.
Among useful resources for the IT curriculum, the National Dairy Council produces Milk It! Touch Explorer on the Farm, which explores a dairy farm using a concept keyboard for key stage 2, and Milk It! Handling Information, which uses spreadsheets and data bases for key stage 3.
There's a lot out there. And since nearly all the serious contenders include a questionnaire that invites users to evaluate the material, perhaps teachers should complain loudly about anything that doesn't measure up.
* Body Shop Tel: 01903 844144
* British Nuclear Fuels Tel: 0500 141142.
Education Show stand H65
* Cadbury's Tel: 0121 458 2000
Education Show stand SJ24
* CATIE Tel: 01832 273319
* Education and YouthTel: 01202 244000.
Education Show stand F30
* National Dairy CouncilTel: 0171 499 7822.
Education Show stand C32
* Pedigree Petfoods Tel: 0171 255 2424
Education Show stand IT39
* Shell Tel:0171 257 1775.
Education Show stand H27