Beware the role of commerce in schools

26th December 1997 at 00:00
Peter Wilby is right (TES, December 12) to bemoan the encroaching involvement of commercial companies in schools. The mistake he makes is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

There is a legitimate role for industry and commerce to play in the education of children for the producer economy, in both private and public guise. The "world of work" has requirements for a variety of life skills, such as literacy, numeracy and computing, that ideally should be supplied through schools at public expense.

However, if companies wish to sponsor specific activities, over and above basic national standards of provision, then there may be no harm in their so doing. For example, if an engineering company wants to support the science labs in a local school I would have thought that acceptable.

What is not legitimate is for companies to push into the consumer economy and obtain, both overtly and covertly, a place in the education of young people in the meaning of consumption. As Wilby forcefully points out, companies are interested in maximising profits, not understanding. Their desire is not for a world of critical consumers but for one of compliant, malleable consumers.

So, for example, when the financial services industry says that it wants schoolchildren to be educated about such matters as savings and investments it is, in reality, asking for them to be persuaded to a pre-ordained view. Rather than instigate a debate about lifetime levels of income necessary for savings and a concomitant discussion about distribution of income in society, it prefers instead to cast savings as a moral virtue and a matter simply of individual proclivity.

The word for this approach is propaganda, the very antithesis of education.

As to Wilby's general point about New Labour's unseemly acceptance of business success as a sole credential for effectiveness and efficiency, I am reminded of the investment maxim that one should only put money into companies that are so simple in organisation and endeavour that they could be run by monkeys because most of the time they will be.

There are no supermen or superwomen in business or elsewhere who can wave magic wands. Imperfect it may be but a system whereby we deliberate collectively, authorise our representatives and agents to raise and distribute money from us to spend in line with those deliberations and hold those representatives accountable through national and local assemblies, is the least worst system we have yet evolved to manage our affairs.

Democracy is by no means perfect, but when it comes to running schools I'd bet on it any day of the week compared to letting business loose.

Leon Kreitzman

85 Rodenhurst Road, London SW4

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