Blood on the hands of British business

17th July 1998 at 01:00
IT'S so good to see British companies getting involved in education. Let us imagine some of the scenes.

In Hull, a representative from British Aerospace engages in a friendly visit to one of the inner-city schools receiving financial and other support from his company.

In South Tyneside, perhaps, a public relations executive from Rolls- Royce, the aero-engine company, may meet the kids in another school to see how his PR money is being spent.

In Indonesia, students meet British companies too - head on in the form of tanks, fighter jets and water cannons.

With all the thought and pre-planning that has gone into the Government's education action zones, the issue of which businesses should be involved seems to have been overlooked.

The question of whether Britain's largest arms exporter, British Aerospace, should have any contribution to our schools, financial or otherwise, doesn't seem to have come up. Surprising really, since in 1995 Tony Blair presented an award to the Channel 4 journalist who exposed the sale of electro-shock torture batons to Saudi Arabia by British Aerospace.

As children are given educational talks by Rolls-Royce, someone seems to have forgotten that their engines are what make the repressive Indonesian army's Hawk fighters fly.

A little more thought should go into who Labour is willing to allow into the public sector. Just as action zones have steered clear of cigarette, alcohol and porn companies, shouldn't we also consider whether companies that make guns, bombs and tanks, and then sell them - albeit legally - to repressive and dictatorial regimes, are really the right role models for children of a New Britain.

Each zone typically receives about Pounds 250,000 a year from local businesses. How much of the money being churned into helping our deprived pupils has been raised from giving dictatorial regimes the support and resources to oppress children in another country, and to dictate their education in line with the state's wishes?

They no longer do so, but ICL supplied computer equipment to Saddam Hussein's defence ministry over a period of two decades. Again, both ICI and ICL were involved in supplying equipment to South Africa during apartheid. British Aerospace has supplied arms to Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. And Rolls-Royce is building engines for the controversial Eurofighter. Hardly good company for the school summer fete.

But blood money is not the only issue. Each of the 25 current zones will have an overseeing forum. Made up of teachers, education authority representatives and business people, the forum will set action plans to raise standards. One has to wonder what kind of standards an arms exporter to Saudi Arabia, China and Turkey could possibly set.

With businesses giving curriculum support to children and supplying mentoring programmes to headteachers, it seems clear than an unscrupulous, cash-orientated mind-set could seep into schools on both an educational and management level.

While it seems clear that arms exporters will not gain financially from their association with schools, one does have to wonder whether donations to deprived areas are only a PR tool to overshadow the less palatable aspects of their work.

With Labour in such a rush to act in the pupil's best interest, parents and children have been given no opportunity to opt out of the action zone scheme.

What of those parents who refuse to allow their children to benefit from cash donated by companies that build weapons of war, fighter planes and tanks? Should parents try to place their children somewhere new until the local action zone is extended to include that school too? Should they then deprive their children of schooling altogether?

Will teachers and staff have to resign over budget improvements rather than cuts because the money is blood stained?

Over the coming months a panel of education advisers will be visiting the zones to monitor progress. Under Sandy Adamson of the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit, the team want to hear the concerns of parents and teachers about the success or failure of the scheme.

This will be an opportunity for concerned parents, teachers and governors to demand that relations with arms companies, multinational conglomerates and environmentally questionable firms are brought to a swift and public end.

With David Blunkett's introduction of a further 75 action zones over the next three years, now is the time to make sure that ethical and environmental considerations are brought to bear on selection procedures in the future.

Gideon Burrows is joint co-ordinator of Campaign Against Arms Trade

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