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No bargains in the education marketplace

Rosemary Litawski is just plain angry at the creeping commercialisation of education. During the last week of the Christmas term, just when everyone was feeling frayed around the edges, and home and family pressures were increasing, I received an urgent phone message from a local paper asking me "to contribute to a special educational feature page they are publishing in the New Year".

Having taken that all-important preparation for headship course - no, not Gillian Shephard's new qualification but "how to deal with the press" - I asked my secretary to find out what it was about before returning the call. The "special educational feature" was in fact several pages of adverts from local schools, to coincide with the week middle school pupils select their new upper school. I was informed I could have a full-page colour ad for Pounds 2, 000, 2 inches by 5 inches in black and white for Pounds 120... or a "special deal" - Pounds 65 for 5 inches by 2 inches.

My dilemma: to spend valuable money or not? To be the only school to advertise or not? And if we can only afford the smallest ad, what message does it give parents?

Schools are frequently castigated for squandering scarce public resources. We are blamed for the moral decay of society, and our failure to address inequalities. The market ideology imposed on us claims to serve efficiency, promote choice and ensure resources are distributed more precisely to meet needs. However, it runs counter to equality and overlooks doubts about whether everyone in society can make rational choices or take advantage of them. There is a superficial perception of consumer empowerment.

Over-conscientious parents, who diligently read every school prospectus and visit every open evening, often ask me in desperation, how I chose the "right" school for my own children. It was not on the basis of glossy prospectuses, nor the largest advert in the local paper, nor even the best examination results. It was simply the nearest. I could intellectualise my choice, by saying I believe in the local comprehensive and want my children to be part of the community they live in. But another overriding factor, was the practical, utilitarian need not to have to pick them up after school activities, and wanting them to be safe coming home. Furthermore, I believe most schools are good.

Before Christmas, the head of my neighbouring feeder middle school said he felt like one of the most popular people around. He had received nine invitations from upper school heads to carol services, Christmas productions, prize-givings and even private drinks parties and meals. He had also had parcels containing 130 prospectuses from three different schools, and others from another seven. Several of these prospectuses must have cost at least Pounds 10 a copy to produce and would only last one year. The total value in his cupboard must literally run into thousands of pounds. On a national scale, we really must ask if this use of resources is justifiable. Is this really what parents want?

Besides questions about the cost and futility of such brochures, they leave me with very ambivalent feelings about my secondary colleagues who parked their cars in my school car park to deliver their prospectuses. What price can be put on collaboration, collegiality, special relationships or even trust and friendship? Competitive marketing exacerbates distrust and ill-feeling among colleagues and raises questions about professional dignity and values.

To return to my immediate dilemma: to advertise or not? Did I have the time? Writing a prospectus pales into insignificance compared with writing the "competitive bid". Once, money was given to schools who needed it the most. Now it often depends on meeting an endless list of performance criteria and writing the dreaded submission to compete with other schools, for usually trifling sums. There is no rational correlation between need and acquiring resources.

And what do you say in such an advert? Do we mention our glowing Office for Standards in Education report, or be truthful and say we survived? Do we mention the tremendous improvement in our examination results this year, or say thank God we are no longer bottom of the league table? Do we mention our excellent facilities, when the roof is not leaking? Do we celebrate the fact that we are still part of a local authority support network and forget that they have just moved our music department, with no consultation, to a neighbouring school which happens to be discussing grant-maintained status? Or do I repeat yet again the OFSTED quote about "outstanding leadership of the headteacher"? I'm not sure the staff can stomach it any more - nor believe it. How does one advertise, in 2 by 5 inches, your ordinary, sound-to-good comprehensive school?

Finally, I faxed an advert to my local paper with the message: "We prefer to spend our money on the education of youngsters rather than advertising. " Three hours later I received a call to say the editor felt he could not accept my advert - other headteachers might object. I object! I object to the costly market-place philosophy of education. I object to the present divisive climate of consumerism. I object to spending money that could be better used. I object to betraying the trust and friendship of colleagues in the name of marketing.

* Rosemary Litawskiis head of Mereway Upper School, Northamptonshire.

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