Want to teach about global warming? Let one of the world's biggest oil companies give you a hand. Struggling to make personal finance appealing? A banking giant may have just what you're missing. Stuck for a project on local history? A time-travelling detective on the trail of a football club's missing mascot may be the answer.
From science to citizenship and history, whatever you need to make your lessons go with a fizz it seems business has the answer. From lesson plans to posters, they can make your subject glossy, smart and just what the teacher ordered.
This is nothing new. Soap company-sponsored wall charts showing the extent of the British Empire adorned many a Victorian classroom, but there is now a growing awareness of the lack of scrutiny of some of the materials available.
The use of sponsored educational materials, or SEMs to those in the know, forms a key part of Professor David Buckingham's inquiry into the effect of the commercial world on children. The professor, who is expected to produce his findings next spring, was asked to conduct the study as part of the Government's Children's Plan, unveiled last December.
"Increasingly, we're finding that the way companies are trying to reach the children's market is away from conventional advertising," he says. "Children and young people are an elusive market. To an extent, you have a captive audience in school."
Sponsored materials are far from the only way companies aim to promote their messages in schools. The spread of the commercial world into education spans the gamut of vending machines in corridors to the Dixons Academy in Bradford, a school sponsored by and named after the electrical retailer. And what gives all this value to businesses is the gravity schools lend to their message.
"If schools are using these resources, does that amount to an endorsement? That could lend these companies greater authority and be a powerful marketing tool," says Professor Buckingham, who is based at the Institute of Education in London.
A report by the NUT last year estimated that UK companies spend about Pounds 300 million a year targeting the classroom to increase sales. The union singled out nutrition advice from Nestle and healthcare information by PPP, a private medical insurance provider, as examples of the increasing sophistication of businesses. The study also highlighted a healthy eating pack for teachers promoting lower fat foods (such as pure chicken breast) from the fast-food chain KFC.
Guidance from the Department for Children, Schools and Families is that teachers are free to use sponsored teaching aids provided they comply with the national curriculum. But it is up to the teacher to decide if the material is suitable.
The result is that few schools have a clear policy and a sense that decisions are largely made on an ad hoc basis, says Prof Buckingham. "There are good reasons for doubting whether these sponsored resources are reliable as sources of information. One of the difficulties is that teachers lead pressured lives, so to what extent are they likely to take something that lands in their lap and use it? Are they really asking the critical questions?"
Commercial involvement in schools - and scrutiny of its impact - is much more advanced in the US. For the past decade, researchers at Arizona State University have published an annual report into commercial activities in schools (see panel), but this year's version was the first to have a UK flavour, with contributions from a British-based academic.
Gary Wilkinson, a lecturer in education policy and the academic in question, takes a relatively hard-core line. He believes schools should be free from commercial influences, citing research suggesting materialistic attitudes result in increased unhappiness.
"We know that materialism is damaging for children, and one of the things that promotes that is uncritical exposure to advertising," he says. "Schools should be free from the concerns of advertising and commerce."
Gary, a lecturer at the Scarborough School of Education, part of Hull University, suggests that using such materials in the classroom carries an implicit assumption that the resources are supported by the school. But he questions whether teachers are the best people to determine whether they present an unbiased view. "Teachers think they can be the guardians of the classroom, but how many have the knowledge to recognise propaganda?" he asks. "Most educational materials don't contain false statements, it is much more subtle than that, and once you get onto global warming, is the average person really in a position to critically evaluate whether something is biased or not?"
He acknowledges there are grey areas. The time-travelling detective Brent Ford may help recruit a new generation of fans for the west London football team Brentford FC, but does a club's traditional role in the community put it in the same category as BP's introduction to climate change or the Royal Bank of Scotland's personal finance programme? And where does the British Heart Foundation's pack to promote skipping fit in?
Gary draws his personal line at whether the sponsor is a profit-making concern. The alternative, he believes, is to take a long slide down a slippery slope. "You are not just damaging children, but you are subverting the principles of education, which is to teach pupils to read a society critically, not become receptacles for advertising."
Not surprisingly, this view isn't shared by Martin Finn, managing director of EdComs, an education consultancy that is one of the principal producers of sponsored materials. The company's client roster is not limited to private companies: as well as BP, Sainsbury's and Microsoft, there's the RAF, the NHS Blood and Transplant service and the Children's Society.
Martin argues that business and education are now so closely linked - through sponsorship, diplomas, mentoring schemes and the like - that to try and separate them would be both futile and a mistake. "To suggest that we should keep all businesses out of schools is to try to turn the clock back and is totally out of step with where young people are.
"Schools are a special place, but that doesn't mean children should live in a bubble outside the real world," he says. Martin estimates that 90 per cent of UK schools have requested resources provided by EdComs, which are all produced with teachers and tested in schools before being made widely available.
He says sponsored resources differ from advertising, in providing an opportunity to look at a topic in depth and, crucially, because the return on investment to business is much slower. "The impact (on the business) will always be longer term," he says. "It is something that may result in a change in attitudes or behaviour, and advertising simply would not bring that about."
Martin acknowledges that a big attraction of sponsored materials is that they are an opportunity to reach young people, but says pressure groups are quick to pick up on any questionable arguments or lack of balance, and blatant attempts to indoctrinate pupils are doomed to fail.
"They are a captive audience in that you know what subject they're doing and where they are, but anybody who treads insensitively is on a hiding to nothing," he adds. "If you produce something that is educationally spurious or on the questionable edge of commerciality, it is unlikely to be used in schools."
He refutes Gary's suggestion that teachers blindly accept sponsored resources. On the contrary, he says, teachers are well aware of the potential for bias and will often use a resource alongside information from other, more impartial, sources.
Company branding on the material is part of an accepted trade-off. "That is the quid pro quo," says Martin. "It is saying that you get resources that are educationally sound but there is a level of exposure to the brand."
BP's involvement in education goes back 40 years. As well as producing resources, the company also runs a school links programme, where employees go into classrooms, and it invests in training courses for science teachers.
"The aim is the same as it was when we started: to get young people excited about the subjects related to our business," says Ian Duffy, manager of BP's education programmes in the UK.
"It is important to us that people can engage in the debate when we talk about things such as climate change or energy supply. It is about a better understanding of the company and some of the issues and subjects related to us."
The oil and gas giant's educational resources include information from other sources, and Ian says it is always clear when data comes from BP. Similarly, he says the use of logos is part of this attempt to be transparent, as well as demonstrate to pupils the applications of science. "We are saying to students that the chemistry they are doing has a real- world relevance," he says.
Nick Chambers, education director of Business in the Community, says many companies, particularly those in the science, engineering and technology sectors, see producing school resources as an investment, not just in their own, but in society's future. "It is in their long-term interests, particularly with the problem of getting graduates to work in those industries."
He says businesses aim to identify gaps so they can provide material that would be useful to schools. "Obviously there is an element of wanting your brand out there, that goes without saying, but if it is done in the right way I don't see a problem with it," he adds.
The range of resources available, and the fear of bad publicity, are the most effective deterrents against producing biased materials that offer only one side of an argument, he says.
But Judith Bennett, chair of the National Governors' Association, is still uneasy about the level of commercial involvement in schools: "Schools are places of education, not places where advertising should find an outlet," she says. But she recognises that reversing the tide will be difficult. "I would hope that teachers use it sensibly and put it into context," she says. "If it's a useful source of information, it's understandable that teachers want to use it - as long as there is an awareness of where it comes from."
One of the key concerns for the sceptics is who is making the assessments of whether material is suitable for use in the classroom. One of the few UK researchers to have looked at this is Gary Raine of the Centre for Health Promotion Research at Leeds Metropolitan University. He has examined commercial activities in primary schools in Yorkshire and Humberside.
His study suggested that teachers would not necessarily treat sponsored materials any differently from other sources, provided they met certain criteria, such as matching curriculum needs, being age appropriate and holding appeal for the pupils.
"There was a common perception that any bias would be quite easy to detect, but a lot of material these days is very subtle, particularly in what it omits," he says.
"Teachers may not always have sufficient training to evaluate these kinds of material and if they're not aware of the promotional bias they may just pass it on."
He proposes schools set up a review process for sponsored materials so decisions on whether to use them are not left to individual teachers.
One of the few other UK studies in this field was produced for the Scottish Executive in 2005, which looked at the costs and benefits of commercial activity in schools and suggested schools would value good practice guidelines on the use of sponsored resources. Guidance produced by Glasgow City Council in 2007 set out general principles for using materials, including not promoting particular products and avoiding the use of merchandising slogans.
"Commercial activity . can be positive, providing funding, materials and equipment," the guidance says, but adds that it "should be viewed cautiously as it also carries risks. In some cases the company or product may be in conflict with the school ethos and educational aims."
Gary Raine contrasts controversy over the showing in schools of Al Gore's climate change film An Inconvenient Truth - with some critics claiming the Government is "brainwashing" children - with low-level concern over logos on materials. "The kids focus so intently on the resources, you could argue the potential impact is much greater."
And while he acknowledges that not all of these materials will be biased, he suggests it is naive to think that companies are acting from purely altruistic motives. Given that, he argues it is incumbent on teachers to be aware of the potential dangers. "Pupils are particularly sensitive to any persuasive communication," he says. "And the fact that teachers are seen as a credible authority adds weight to any promotional messages that may be in schools." In this debate, a healthy dose of scepticism goes a long way.
Finding a balance
Anthony David, deputy head at Highgate Primary in north London, says his school has used resources ranging from information on cycling from the sustainable transport charity Sustrans, to science materials produced by BP. The test is who benefits most.
"I'd like to think we've moved away from outright blind cynicism towards business in education," he says. "You need to find a mental balance of whether the resource is of greater benefit to the children or the company, and if the balance falls to the children I would say the business is creating something that is appropriate."
He acknowledges that critics will say the advertising is clandestine, but says logos on materials are little different from publishers' logos on textbooks. He says setting up a review for each resource would be too time consuming, and rejects the suggestion that teachers are not always the best people to decide if material is suitable.
"Everyone has got an agenda, you can't hide from that, but people are much more savvy about advertising than they were 20 years ago," he says. "I would like to think that professionals will look at a resource carefully and use their judgment."
The American way
Business involvement in schools is much farther advanced in the US. For the past 10 years, developments on the other side of the Atlantic have been monitored by academics at Arizona State University.
The Commercialism in Education Research Unit, led by professor of education policy Alex Molnar, has charted attempts by companies to get their messages into schools - from the obvious to the subtle.
Channel One is at the more blatant end of the scale. In return for free television equipment, schools agree to broadcast particular advertisement- heavy programmes to their classes. The channel has come in for criticism and has been banned in some school districts.
Materials picked out in previous reports include The History of Prepared Foods in America produced by a ham retailer, maths textbooks that referred to Oreos as the "best selling packaged cookie in the world" and a recycling unit produced by Nike emphasising the recyclable qualities of its shoes.
The company provides a teaching pack on electricity and energy for science, citizenship, PSHEPSD and education for sustainable development.
ROYAL BANK OF SCOTLAND
RBS may have just received a bail-out from taxpayers, but its resources focus on teaching about money and business with the help of imaginary companies.
Packs on everything from eyes to malaria and STDs are available from the high-street chain.
BP's involvement in education goes back 40 years. Company employees also go into classrooms.
The supermarket giant focuses on food, showing its fun and healthy side, plus it offers packs on falling in love and mental health, among other subjects.