“Making better protestors”

Weetabix history book
Photos courtesy of Alan Banks @MrBanksy

The late and lamented Professor Ted Wragg used to write for the back-page of the Times Educational Supplement and often used to deflate new-fangled claims by one expert or another. Some head teachers thought he undermined their authority by arming teachers with the satire to thwart the next un-called for government initiative. I regarded it as a necessary pressure-valve for teachers and a reminder that there is always another view to be found.

He used the Egg Information Society, not the actual British Egg Marketing Board, as an example of a body determined to get their special interests into schools. As life imitates art, this industry body is now called the British Egg Information Society. It tried to resurrect the ‘go to work on an egg’ adverts and they were considered unsuitable for modern dietary advice raising the ire of the anti-PC brigade. [Express, 2007)

I also remember the case of the historical time-line made available free for classrooms which placed the first creation of wheat-based breakfast cereal alongside the defeat of Napoleon and other significant events. We had posters with a discrete logo of the National Coal Board but the chocolate-bar vending machines in the mid-eighties were the first deliberate commercial penetration of school corridors and classrooms which is widespread now.

The objection was not eggs or Weetabix per se but the zeal for a specialised interest in which everyone else was expected to share. Paradoxically, the current government claims it wants to avoid such intrusions and that these matters are best left to the teaching profession. Almost without exception advocates want their self-interest added to the school curriculum.

To these interests with a commercial imperative have to be added the huge gamut of voluntary sector bodies each with their own special perspective. I could have funded a major project with a pound for every time I have heard NGO education staff say, ‘teachers should…’ when they ought to have been saying ‘teachers could…’. In this vein, they would advocate that Ofsted should inspect ‘It’ to add to the importance of what they wanted. This approach employed a third-party stick to gain an advantage. The NGO staff had their own work pressures, too, in making sure they were deemed successful.

weetabix-history-georgians

Corporate Social Responsibility

Once these learning materials were called ‘sponsored’ and the purpose was for a company to provide a resource which was not funded from public sources or mainstream publishers. The content was expressly not about the product or service of the sponsoring company. At some point the pseudo-altruism evaporated and they became open about wanting something in return and not necessarily just the warm-feel of doing good. On the other hand, there was a sense of obligation emerging which implied companies should be engaged in the educational process as part of their license to operate. This has become part of what is now known as corporate social responsibility (CSR).

The Guardian Environment Blog cites a recent example of where it goes wrong: a Canadian oil and gas company producing a colouring book being sent into schools with an agenda of impressing upon young minds the value of natural gas resources being exploited in their community (see link and reference below). It really is surprising that such an unsubtle approach is even considered.

I was immersed in these issues when I left my teaching post to work for Kent County Council education department in partnership with Eurotunnel and ended up doing so for eight years (background on Pannage site). There is much more to be said on this time but there is one instance that comes to mind when thinking about what we were doing. Sir Alastair Morton, co-Chairman of Eurotunnel, was being briefed on the education work and, as he munched through a plate of digestive biscuits, I patiently explained that our interest was in enquiry learning that raises issues and not just in passing on fixed solutions. At the end, showing he understood it all, he fixed me with steely eyes and said ‘You mean we are producing better protestors.’

Beyond a TunnelThe public affairs team at Eurotunnel produced a publication called Beyond a Tunnel which tells the story of involvement with the local community. Under education the objectives are listed as:

  • to play an active role in developing a relevant curriculum
  • to derive maximum mutual benefit by pooling the expertise of business and education
  • to enlarge the potential recruitment pool by making young people more employable
  • to promote an understanding of common European goals and ideals

A page from this publication is shown to the right.

Since the early nineties the commercialisation of the education service, not just the curriculum in schools, has expanded considerably. This wider scenario merits another post but, with the 2010-government, education policy in England is inclined toward non-intervention: a ‘free-market, anything goes’, if you like.

“Inappropriate marketing”

However, with direct reference to young people, a recent publication by Consumer Focus Scotland (see below) states:

“Schools must ensure that commercial sponsorship does not lead to inappropriate marketing to children and young people.

Schools also have to consider other implications of sponsorship that do not apply in the same way to other public sector organisations; for example, in ensuring that any educational resources provided are not biased or that children are not being used to encourage their parents to shop for a particular brand.”

This publication provides a useful checklist of six principles and these questions:

“Overall, do the benefits to pupils outweigh the costs? [Principle 1]

Does the sponsorship support health promotion? [Principles 2 and 3]

Does the commercial sponsorship conform to the legal regulations and industry codes of practice in relation to advertising and promotion of products to under 16s? [Principle 3]

Is the level of marketing activity proportionate? [Principle 4]

Is the sponsorship for additional services or improvements, not to fund core public services? [Principle 5]

Does the sponsorship support the curriculum and provide added value to children’s learning? [Principle 6]”

Contrast this perspective with the Education and Employers Taskforce website declaration that, in connection with academies and specialist schools, “Sponsoring a school is a great way to influence the educational experience of future employees.”

I know which approach I regard as well-conceived and can spot the one that seems to compromise the basis of our education system. We need the strong values in teaching and learning to be ‘making better protestors’. We should not just trying to make a profit from the production of better employees or consumers.

I am keen to facilitate discussion and provide advice on these issues for organisations and companies.

References
‘Fracking’ company targets US children with colouring book
Gas extraction company produces colouring book for US children featuring ‘Talisman Terry, your friendly Fracosaurus’
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2011/jul/14/gas-fracking-children-colouring-book

Consumer Focus Scotland (March 2009) Guidelines on Commercial Sponsorship in Schools
http://www.consumerfocus.org.uk/scotland/files/2010/10/Sponsorship-in-Schools.pdf

Eurotunnel (May 1993) Beyond a Tunnel, Eurotunnel