Branding schools, the way of the future?

7th September 2001 at 01:00
Tony Blair has caused a stink within the Labour party by accepting McDonald's sponsorship for a pound;15,000 reception at the forthcoming party conference. Apparently, this is just one of some 30 "sponsorship opportunities" being touted around potential corporate takers.

Everything, from the conference's ambulance service, relaxation zone, WAP phone service, video screens, recycling bins, gala dinner, to flower arrangements is under offer.

At first sight, things have come to a pretty pass when the ruling party lacks the funds to foot the bill for its annual conference but fortunately, this is not the problem. Mr Blair believes in welcoming the private sector into areas previously independently or publicly funded. When projects like bridges and hospitals are up for corporate involvement in the form of Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs), why fuss over drinks and canapes at Brighton? Or sponsorship in schools for that matter. Mr Blair is an enthusiastic supporter of "education and business partnerships" where companies are encouraged, out of the goodness of their hearts, to give schools a bit of "peripheral help" with their budgets.

Many schools are beginning to look like advertising zones. The logos of soft drinks, sugary and fatty snacks shout out from school vending machines and cafeterias. True, their very existence is directly in conflict with the official healthy eating messages being taught in home economics, but in return for exclusive rights, the vending company will pay the school 2 per cent of its takings. In cash-strapped schools, even the toughest and most principled headteacher must be tempted.

A less obvious form of advertising has been developed by the snack manufacturer, Walkers. Its "Free Books for Schools" offer encourages children and parents to collect tokens from bags of Walkers crisps which schools can then exchange for books. Its competitor, Pringles, used to exchange foil tops for school sports equipment. Tokens from McVities biscuits could be swapped for maths equipment, and Tetley has handed out "free sports stuff" in return for tokens from packets of tea.

Tesco issues vouchers for "free computer equipment" for schools for every pound;10 spent. Pity the poor staff whose time is spent sorting these.

Educational materials are a more subtle promotional approach. Oil multinationals, pharmaceutical, biotech and nuclear-power companies have all had a go at infiltrating the curriculum in the form of helpful leaflets, posters or "educational" films which present their activities in a wholly positive light. Most teachers can see these for what they are, but it is harder to say no when it saves you money. Exercise books, emblazoned with the caption "Young Americans", have been donated free to schools (with the approval of the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations and the National Association of Head Teachers). On their covers, shiny, happy pictures of the cast of Dawson's Creek, a brainless US soap. A "free" official secondary school diary these days quite commonly comes with ads for mobile phones, the British School of Motoring and earplugs to listen into Virgin Radio or plan for a disco holiday in inebriated Ibiza.

So while teachers try to engage adolescents in intellectual activity to let them see that there is more to life than text-messaging, clubbing and boy-racing, the school diary is telling them the opposite.

Where does it all stop? When my daughter was in her final year at primary school, her classroom had no fewer than three iMac computers for 22 children, two of which had come courtesy of voucher schemes. Yet the whole school, with a roll of some 300 children, did not have a specialist art teacher because of lack of money in the budget. Raffles and jumble sales to fund things like special trips are fair enough, but when schools are expected to bring in private money to fund essential staff, books and equipment, the pressure on government to resource them adequately is lessened.

Teachers shouldn't be shy about exploiting their school's "branding opportunities". Why not have Nestle sponsor the staffroom coffee? What about reinventing the gym as the Nike or Adidas "sports zone?" Why not go the whole hog and have the headteacher address the school assembly wearing a back-to-front baseball cap with the logo of the fast-food chain that has so kindly sponsored the schools anti-truancy drive? Believe me, it could happen.

Joanna Blythman is a food writer and journalist

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