Case study: James Gillespie's high school, Edinburgh

25th June 2004 at 01:00
A brief flirtation with in-school advertising brought about a swift response from some of the sixth-year pupils. Instead of ignoring pre-sold advertising sites in the school canteen and reception area, students took their protests to headteacher Alex Wallace, demanding they be removed. He took them down the next day and stuck up a new poster declaring Gillespie's was "a listening school".

"A poster promoting the pop singer Darius suddenly appeared in the canteen," says student Calum Davey. "Our school has a quite a high moral standard so we were shocked when we first saw it. We couldn't work out where it had come from or why it was there." He didn't know a company had bought the two prime sites from the school (the canteen and reception area have the highest pupil traffic), put up boxed noticeboards and sold the space on.

School is about education and that is its sole purpose. How can something promoting a singer have anything to do with education? You can't keep commercialism out of school completely - pupils are walking around in branded clothes and there are Apple Macs every where, but you have to limit it." Calum asked some of his friends and canvassed younger pupils: most thought promotion of a pop star had no place in school.

Another senior pupil in the same year was equally offended. "We have vending machines with adverts on the front, but they are telling you what is available from the machine. This was blatant advertising, which I felt shouldn't be in school," says Catherine MacNab.

Word got back to Mr Wallace, who called the students in individually and asked them to explain their reactions. Calum wasn't worried. "He'd been a regular teacher until he became head, and most of us had been taught by him at some point and knew he would appreciate pupils' opinions. It gave me an opportunity to have my say."

"It was a good meeting," adds Catherine, who will be studying history and politics at Leeds University from September. "We put over our view that advertising in school was unacceptable and he listened. The second site in the reception area had a poster advertising higher education, which Mr Wallace explained was why the school had agreed to the contract. But he recognised that non-educational advertising wasn't right for the school grounds."

"His reaction was to remove both posters immediately," says Calum, who is taking a year out to teach deaf and blind children in Sri Lanka before taking up a place at Cambridge to study natural sciences. "Then he put up his own posters apologising for the adverts, stating that complaints by pupils had prompted the change."

In his own posters Mr Wallace pointed out that Gillespie's was a "listening school" that took pupils' opinions on board. He also brought the issue up in assembly to explain to the whole school why the posters were being removed, and why advertising might not be appropriate in school, giving the rest of the pupils an opportunity to discuss the issue.

"There are posters up in certain areas of the school pushing health messages and other government messages, and I think that is acceptable. But we want to keep corporations out of school so we can feel secure, without being subjected to commercial messages," says Calum. "It's good that Scotland is leading the way on banning branding on vending machines and I feel the teachers agree. When I talked to them about the posters, I felt they were sympathetic to our view, and believed schools should be commercial-free zones."

Calum Davey and Catherine MacNab were talking to Su Clark

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