Firms look beyond the poster option;Resources

4th June 1999 at 01:00
Once it was wallcharts, but the Eighties changed schoolbusiness links as Stephen Hoare reports

Sponsored educational materials have been used by schools since time immemorial - wall chart world maps donated by national newspapers and soap companies adorned Victorian classroom walls, while in the Fifties the Shell Guides to the seashore and countryside decorated many a primary classroom. But times move on and the big upsurge in business involvement in schools began in the early Eighties with the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI). Local management of schools provided the other catalyst. Running their own budgets, schools embraced sponsorship with open arms.

Business sponsorship receives the government's blessing. The Department for Education and Employment was involved in and endorses the Warwick University Centre for Education and Industry's Directory of Teaching Materials from Business. Tesco whose computers for schools promotion "Schoolnet 2000" is the official Millennium Dome education zone sponsor. And along with the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Parent Teachers Association, DFEE also apparently lends its backing to News International and Walkers Snack Foods "Free Books for Schools" promotion.

According to Business in the Community, companies are spending pound;200 million in schools annually. But while interest and activity remain high, corporate donations have been in decline - down from pound;300 million three years ago. This is because companies prefer to offer help in kind - training and redundant computer equipment rather than no-strings cash to boost schools' budgets. Most of the money business spends on education goes on endowing technology colleges, establishing IT centres, setting up out-of-school study support and involvement in education action zones.

Ian Pearce, director of Business in the Community, comments. "The biggest gift of all is time. Companies are getting involved in a host of ways from mentors and governors to offering work and teacher placements. Sixty-nine per cent of our member companies put education as their number one charitable cause."

Set up in 1983, BITC started its educational group in 1990 to co-ordinate the efforts of its 500 or so member companies wanting to invest in schools.

The reason why education comes top of the business agenda is not hard to guess. Skills shortages are biting across the board and young people's lack of basic skills makes them unemployable in a modern world. Under-performing schools eventually equals under-performing companies. It is not a case of philanthropy, it is more a case of self interest. The success of NVQs is predicated on an ability to read, to write, to add, subtract multiply and divide. Pearce says: "Since it started playing an active part in education, BITC has seen the emphasis switch firmly towards basic skills literacy and numeracy and a group of key skills - IT, communications and teamwork and leadership."

Sponsorship can be direct or indirect. The network of 170 Education Business Partnerships set up by the government to foster business links in England, Scotland and Wales are a first port of call for schools wanting curriculum material. But funding from business itself is minimal. A research project carried out by Sian Bowen and Robert Bennett for the University of Cambridge department of geography puts business funding at 6.6 per cent. In spite of this, business involvement is growing. Compared with 1993, EBPs surveyed report a 70 per cent increase in the number of companies involved in business links.

Ranking alongside efforts to reverse underachievement in schools is organisations' need to educate young people about employment opportunities. This is particularly true of industries or occupations which fail to attract sufficient school leavers, eg the construction and engineering industries and the armed forces.

Last, but by no means least, schools offer a huge marketing potential. The growth in outside sponsorship relates directly to spending power of children and to their influence over the family budget. They are also consumers of the future and by sponsoring education, companies are keen to establish brand awareness. Putting across selling messages comes from many sources other than the business community. Charities, voluntary organisations, government departments are all involved in supporting education but most use that support to push a message.

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