Is there such a thing as a free healthy-eating pack? Matthew Bell on moves to ensure children think critically about food marketing.
The national curriculum says that schools must teach five to 11-year-olds about food and health. But with many hard-pressed to provide basic teaching facilities, this can prove a demanding task. Until, that is, a glossy teaching pack from a major food manufacturer arrives in the post. Such packs are well-produced, full of information and, best of all, free. But many also promote products that nutritionists advise children to eat in moderation.
New Government guidelines on "Education materials concerned with nutrition", which help teachers clarify the difference between a teaching resource and a classroom commercial, could solve the problem. On November 6, the Department of Health launched a campaign to promote the guidelines to schools and the manufacturers of teaching resources. But some children's health organisations are concerned that the guidelines may be limited in their effectiveness because they are voluntary.
While welcoming the guidelines, the National Heart Forum wants to see sponsored materials pass an accreditation scheme and the guidelines to be monitored. "Classroom sponsorship is burgeoning and food companies seem particularly keen to develop teaching packs," says NHF director Imogen Sharp. "Our concern is that all materials concerned with nutrition follow Government nutrition advice. But if they don't, who is going to check? Without monitoring, the guidelines are open to abuse and neglect."
Companies such as Kellogg's, Heinz, Mars and Cadbury's are active in school sponsorship, as are trade associations such as the National Dairy Council, Egg Marketing Board and the Meat and Livestock Commission. Retailers, including Tesco and Argos, offer vouchers to customers which they can use to buy computers for their children's schools.
The educational packs produced by food companies are backed by large budgets and much marketing nous. But the NHF decided to play the food manufacturers at their own game by producing a teaching resource pack, Eat your words, to encourage children to think critically about food marketing.
Imogen Sharp says: "Our aim was to provide a balance. Children are bombarded with messages promoting products and we wanted to provide them with the ammunition to make up their own minds about some of the subtle and not so subtle methods used to promote food. We wanted to tap into children's very sophisticated understanding of advertising to get them to think about how the food they eat has a bearing on their health.
In many ways, it is an unequal battle. According to the NHF, Pounds 500 million is spent every year on promoting soft drinks and food, some Pounds 70 million of this on chocolate and confectionery alone. The national health promotion agency, however, has an annual budget of just Pounds 500,000 to promote healthy eating.
The growth in company sponsorship of education materials is hardly surprising when one considers the rewards - the confectionery and soft drinks market is vast and children make up many of the buyers. It is also very competitive, witness the saturation advertising of sweets and drinks around children's television programmes. It is not only businesses that want to catch their consumers young - charities like NHF, the British Nutrition Foundation and the Vegetarian Society are also in the market for young minds.
Over the past few years sponsorship has grown rapidly. Two years ago, consumer watchdog the National Consumer Council estimated that, at the very least, some Pounds 300 million was being spent annually on commercial and sponsored activities aimed at schools. "The amount spent might even have doubled since then because schools are so desperate for educational materials," says John Ward, development director at the NCC. "Their book budgets have been so blighted that many cannot operate without commercial sponsorship."
The NCC was so concerned that it produced guidelines, Sponsorship in schools, which addressed the promotion of commercial products in schools. These examine the issues of a product's educational value and whether this value outweighs its marketing message; whether the school can participate without buying the sponsor's products; and whether it is free of incentives for children to eat an unhealthy diet. The NCC hopes that its guidelines will lead to a better understanding of what constitutes a good teaching resource, and says that there is good practice out there already.
Heinz, for example, produces educational materials on food labelling which, among other things, looks at the history and legal requirements of labelling, food additives (E numbers) and bar codes. John Ward says: "It is a useful educational material that encourages children to look critically at food labelling; I rate it highly." But he adds that Heinz does mention its name.
Perhaps of even more concern than sponsored educational materials is the use of vouchers, which can be exchanged for a company's product, to reward a child's school performance. The NCC is opposed to vouchers being used to reward ordinary school activities, but it recognises that sometimes the extreme financial problems faced by a school will mean that it has little choice but to accept overt commercial sponsorship.
"We do not use the NCC guidelines as commandments; each school has to make a judgment based on its own situation. The level of commercial exposure the children face will often depend on the resources of a school," says John Ward.
In Birmingham, for example, the manager of McDonald's made vouchers available to a school which the headteacher used to reward good attendance and completing homework. He told John Ward: "If you come to my school, you'll see it's on the edge of disintegration. Thank God for McDonald's which was prepared to help us."
Despite the NCC and Government guidelines, distinguishing between what is and is not fit for the classroom could still cause a teacher headaches. The manufacturers' body, the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate Confectionery Alliance, for example, has objected to much of the content of the NHF's Eat your words. But, says Imogen Sharp, such disputes and confusion will persist until resources are properly accredited and monitored.
But with the Government refusing to commit itself to such a scheme, it remains up to the teacher to decide if there is any such thing as a free resource or a sponsorship deal without strings.