Pushed for time, stretched for resources and squeezed into facilities, schools are under immense pressure. With nothing left in the governmental pot, is the time now ripe for the private sector to ride to the rescue?
Barclays bank thinks so. In January it announced a three year extension of its in-school money management courses at a cost of £15m. It is also offering £1m to groups wanting to set up free schools.
Barclays is one of many brands getting involved in schools, from providing equipment and learning materials to sponsoring trips and providing finance.
Marketing to children is a highly sensitive issue, as shown by the stringent rules around standard advertising and media buying, so surely there should be a backlash from teachers and parents?
It seems not, as 84% of secondary school teachers say they would welcome teaching resources from brand manufacturers; 68% look for more information on websites, 65% are happy to receive branded lesson plans and 63% are prepared to use sponsored worksheets. A surprising 61% say product samples would not be out of place in the classroom, according to a 2011 National Schools Partnership (NSP) survey on the teaching of physical and sexual education.
“Working with schools has to make sense for the particular brand,” says NSP chief executive Mark Fawcett. “You can’t become involved in healthy eating in primary schools if you are known as a brand with high fat, salt or sugar content.”
Corporates are more aware than ever of how well their brands will fit within the school context, Fawcett says. “Five years ago, we would have had many more requests to get involved from unsuitable brands. Today it’s maybe only five times a year when we have to say we wouldn’t recommend this course of action.”
It is easy to see why many of the brands listed on the NSP’s website are a good fit with education. Ranging from agricultural bodies to personal hygiene brands, personal finance to DIY, they all have a part to play in the national curriculum.
Supermarket chain Morrisons, for example, is in the fourth year of its successful ‘Let’s grow’ campaign, which it developed with the NSP. The training programme teaches children about food and encourages them to follow a healthier lifestyle. It is a package of learning materials, voucher incentive schemes giving horticultural equipment to schools, and in-store trips.
Previously, there was an assumption that “vegetables just appeared on the shelf”, says David Hewitt, Morrisons’ head of communities. “By taking groups of school children around stores to talk about where fruit and vegetables come from, and then taking them to the bakery, the fishmonger and the butcher, we deliver a powerful message about cooking and ingredients. For the parents, most people carry around five everyday recipes in their heads. It’s about expanding that.”
Morrisons will not reveal its campaign spend, but it says 26,500 schools have signed up and 5 million school children have registered to take part. It claims to have given away £10m worth of equipment over the past four years.
Agriculture and sustainability are consistent themes running through food brands’ educational programmes. The Potato Council, which promotes the interests of the UK’s potato growers, has both a commercial and a CSR interest in being involved in schools. Caroline Evans, head of marketing and corporate affairs, explains: “Our overall aim is to sustain demand for potatoes by reconnecting children with the food they eat and educating them about the potato’s role in a healthy, balanced diet. For our secondary scheme, we wanted to help young people develop basic potato cooking skills and inform them on topics such as sustainability in the potato industry.”
Growing kits are provided to schools, supported by online lesson plans and learning resources on a dedicated microsite, created by digital agency Creative Jar. The Grow Your Own Potatoes scheme was piloted with a few hundred schools and their feedback was used to develop the project, which has been running for eight years. The council invests around £200,000 in education across primary and secondary school schemes and an events programme, which it claims equates to around 400,000 children learning about potatoes.
DIY retailer B&Q encourages schools to visit its stores to take part in DIY projects managed by in-store staff. In its fourth year, the ‘Job Done’ scheme adds to children’s education, says community manager Kelly Metcalfe.
The scheme is developed in conjunction with the NSP to create learning materials for children from Year One to Year 11 (before 2011, the scheme was only available from Key Stage Three and upwards). Teaching resources are available to download from the website. B&Q is careful not to push the brand to an inappropriate audience, says Metcalfe: “Our logo is at the bottom of the downloads and that is our only brand communication on learning materials.”
Remaining brand neutral is important, argues NSP’s Fawcett: “The content in schools may have little or no branding at all. It would be wrong for us to recommend that everything children see is branded. Communications that go home to parents may have more branding on them. In the end, each teacher will decide whether or not to use our content and they are unlikely to welcome heavily branded materials.”
Like Morrisons, B&Q emphasises getting children to come into the store to take part in DIY projects. Where brands have a bricks-and mortar-presence, bringing the children to the in-store experience is becoming more common. Cynics might suggest this gives companies the chance to unleash the full brand experience on children, but Metcalfe argues that the large range of tools and materials a B&Q store might stock gives them a much more immersive learning experience than a junior hacksaw and some balsa wood might deliver in class.
“It’s exciting for the kids to have an experience of a store, but a more important consideration is getting the stores engaged in the programme. Most of our colleagues are in-store and they need to be engaged. It’s our experts that teach the kids,” she says.
While teacher attitudes in the NSP’s survey show that brand intervention is welcomed in some areas, there remains a certain wariness about brand involvement in education. Most recently, Barclays’ involvement in teaching was positively received by the Department for Education but received a sharp rebuke from the National Union of Teachers (NUT).
In a statement released in January, NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: “Opening schools up to the marketplace is simply wrong. Children and young people should not be influenced at an impressionable age by whichever large company manages to gain a foothold in their school.
“This is [education secretary] Michael Gove’s vision for the future of education in this country. It is extraordinarily flawed and will most certainly result in a two-tier system. Schools in deprived areas, whose pupils do not fit the right socio-economic profile, will not get the help, financial or otherwise, from business.
Any successful business’s involvement in a school will surely be decided on what returns they can reap for themselves.”
But the brands in this feature say the materials they provide are available to all schools. Much of the interaction in class is based on learning materials that are freely available through the internet, with the full financial cost of development being met by the brand owner.
Business involvement in teaching will always raise questions from some quarters, but Fawcett argues that if it is done well, it will be welcomed. “If a brand can show parents that it is doing things to support [teaching], it will be accepted. If you do it in a crass and ineffective way, parents will reject it.”
Barclays’ relationship with schools goes back several years, through initiatives such as its Money Skills programme and direct financial support for schools.
Its latest initiative takes Barclays’ relationship with schooling one step further, with the endorsement of education secretary Michael Gove.
The scheme provides financing and resources that support the government’s recently established free school and academy system to the tune of £1.25m over the next three years. Barclays hopes its involvement will boost children’s financial management skills in an age of increasing debt dependency and also improve the quality of schools’ teaching resources.
Luke Jooste, education sector head at Barclays, explains why the bank felt it was right to get involved in teaching.
“Barclays spent time with recognised experts from the sector to understand whether we could support education on a broader scale.
“Through those discussions, it became clear that Barclays’ people, capabilities and scale in the UK were well placed to support some of the needs of the schools involved, so we put together a proposal that we took to the secretary of state -which is largely what we have now launched,” he says.
Gove justifies the relevance of the bank’s involvement. He said in a statement/ “Since the 16th century, when the first City livery companies opened schools, we have seen huge benefits when schools and businesses work together. I want a new generation of businesses to do the same in our changing schools system. Our reforms to give schools more independence have created great opportunities for businesses and charities to make a lasting commitment to help.”
Jooste insists Barclays’ increased involvement comes from an educational, rather than a brand marketing need.
“This is a Department for Education initiative, not a Barclay’s initiative. We have found the right way for us to support the educational reform movement and we are happy to have found a way to contribute that the schools told us would be highly valuable. But this only works if it is led by the government. We have absolutely no intention of using this as an opportunity to promote Barclays,” he claims.
The National Union of Teachers still has reservations about brand involvement, but Jooste is insistent that all control remains with the frontline educators. “Nothing from this programme will be put to use unless the administration of a particular school is comfortable that it will be beneficial to their pupils,” he says. “The relevant administrators and teachers will determine the precise execution at any given school, so there is no chance that the educational integrity of what those schools are doing could be compromised.”
The return on investment for Barclays is clearly a long-term strategy, with any immediate benefits being largely in the CSR domain. The bank has in place a number of soft metrics in the short term to determine the project’s success, including the amount of material downloaded to support in-class learning and the number of schoolchildren who acquire money-management skills.
Jooste adds: “Over the long term, of course, we will be looking for signs that the schools and students we have supported through this initiative achieve more as a result of our engagement. That will, of course, be difficult to prove analytically, but we will watch for even qualitative signs.”