Market researchers employed by the Department for Education are offering teachers, governors and parents Pounds 20 cash in brown envelopes to attend meetings aimed at testing the effectiveness of Government publicity material designed to promote its troubled grant-maintained schools policy.
The "expenses" are being offered by London-based Reflexions Market Research, which is conducting five regional meetings. It is claimed the company has also been cold-calling schools in an effort to find sympathetic staff. The move comes amid dwindling interest in the opt-out movement. In the 12 months up to the end of March, just 13 secondary schools voted yes to going GM, compared with 112 the previous year, while in the primary sector, 57 schools voted to opt-out, compared with 203 the previous year.
The meetings also coincide with widespread unrest over education cuts because of the Government's refusal to fund the 2.7 per cent teachers' pay rise.
And David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said: "This takes the biscuit. There is no money for schools but there is money in the kitty for promoting Tory ideology and tired old policies."
DFE officials refused to divulge how much the company was being paid pleading "commercial confidentiality" but Mr Blunkett has demanded answers in parliamentary questions tabled this week.
He said: "Parents, governors and teachers will be rightly outraged by Gillian Shephard's priorities."
Reflexions Market Research would not comment because of "client confidentiality" but it is understood that just seven people this week attended a meeting at the Royal Victoria (Holiday Inn) Hotel in Sheffield, where a function room catering for 20 costs Pounds 85 to hire.
They were recruited after schools in the city were canvassed for support and introduced to the company by letter by Lucy King, from the DFE information branch.
In her letter, she said: "They have been commissioned by the department to carry out qualitative research, consisting of a mixture of focus groups and depth interviews, into the communication effectiveness of the department's grant-maintained schools publicity material."
As well as attending a meeting, people are also asked to assess a GM video and three pamphlets. It is understood that the Sheffield session focused on "why GM is not as popular as it should be - what's going wrong".
A DFE spokesman said the Pounds 20 payment was to cover the cost of travelling and child care and added: "Research like this is conducted by most Government departments in their publicity campaigns. It will help steer our publicity in the most effective way."
But Matthew Simpson, assistant education director with Sheffield city council, said: "It is a bit ironic that at a time when the teachers' pay rise isn't being found it seems all right to use public money to give teachers some money so long as they are sympathetic towards GM."