Free lunch has a label on it
The market has grown and changed rapidly since guidelines were first issued in 1988. Increasingly businesses, charities and pressure groups see the marketing potential in targeting children and their parents. This is partly because financial pressure on schools makes them eager recipients of free equipment and materials. The introduction of the national curriculum must also have played a part in helping businesses identify what materials will be in demand across the country.
The guidelines, which are to be sent to every school, have been compiled by a working party drawn from businesses, heads, teachers, governors and parents' organisations, trading standards departments and the Advertising Standards Authority. They seek to help staff and governors evaluate materials and make the best use of what is available.
As we all know, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and the objective of any potential sponsor must be to raise its own profile, show itself in a good light and attract brand loyalty from its beneficiaries. This is an acceptable trade-off if the activities offered meet the same high standard as any other materials we use in schools: that is, they should be suitable for the ages and abilities of the children, be relevant to the curriculum, contribute to the development of core skills, enhance learning and conform to the school's equal opportunities policies in the images they present.
There should clearly be no direct selling of a particular product or service. The sponsor's name must appear, but not accompanied by any advertising slogans, or claims that the sponsor's product is the best, or only, one available. Unsolicited materials should never be sent to pupils, and samples of products should only be distributed to pupils with the school's permission. Schools might be well advised to consult parents too before handing out free goodies.
The question of balance and objectivity is particularly important when using materials from voluntary organisations and pressure groups. The guidelines suggest that they should use up-to-date and accurate information, distinguish between factual statements and expressions of opinion, and acknowledge the existence of alternative views.
The other area covered by the guidelines is that of gifts, awards and vouchers directed at individual pupils or schools as a whole. As far as individual pupils are concerned, schools are advised to take account of the nutritional value of any food or drink offers, and are discouraged from offering sponsored prizes for everyday academic performance or behaviour. This raises interesting questions about recent cases of rewards being offered for full attendance; perhaps it depends on the social norms of the area involved as to whether this is regarded as an "everyday" activity.
As far as whole school voucher collecting schemes are concerned, the guidelines ask for clear information on how the scheme works, the exchange rate of vouchers, the minimum offer, the time limit on exchange and the retail value and range of compatibility of the equipment on offer.
Although the Consumer Council is unable to provide extra copies of the guidelines, schools are encouraged to photocopy and distribute the checklist below and to use the whole leaflet to formulate their own policies on the use of sponsored materials and free offers. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts seems to be the general message, but if sponsors as well as schools take account of these guidelines we all stand to gain.
Questions that need to be asked
When your school is offered a sponsored resource or activity * Is it clear who the sponsor is?
* Does its educational value outweigh its marketing message?
* Is its approach to the subject balanced and up-to-date?
* Is it relevant to the curriculum and the children's age group?
* Has it been tested for use in schools?
* Is it free of stereotypes?
* Can children and teachers participate without buying the sponsor's products?
* Is it free of messages that encourage children to pester adults about buying a specific firm's products or services?
* Is it free of incentives to children to eat an unhealthy diet or take part in unsafeunhealthy activities?
* Are the benefits of the sponsored offer worthwhile and achievable for your school?
All Yes answers: the resource or activity probably meets the good practice guidelines. All No answers: reject the sponsored offer. Mixed Yes and No answers: discuss with colleagues and measure against full guidelines