Business in schools faces a testing time

For the first time the Department for Education & Employment is to sit down with the National Consumer Council and discuss the role of advertising and sponsorship within schools.

For the first time the Department for Education & Employment is to sit down with the National Consumer Council and discuss the role of advertising and sponsorship within schools.

Brands from McDonald’s to Tesco are using schools as a medium for advertising to children through sponsorship of educational equipment. Business is becoming involved in schools through the Government’s Education Action Zones. But there is considerable disquiet among consumer groups, educationists and the brand owners themselves as to how far this should go.

The stakes are high – school children are a consumer group worth 300m to advertisers, according to the NCC, which drew up voluntary guidelines on sponsorship in schools in 1996. Since then, advertiser-sponsored activity has exploded.

Not only are there no hard and fast rules governing how advertisers should approach this “captive audience”, there is nothing to distinguish between age groups, nothing to monitor cause and effect, and no government input. A situation which could be about to change.

Susan Johnson, the Department for Education & Employment’s divisional manager for study support and business and community links, has announced a new DfEE initiative to review business involvement in schools.

The review will not necessarily lead to government-led compulsory guidelines. NCC head of public affairs Diana Whitworth says: “I would like schools to produce local policies about how to deal with business. They have policies on everything else; it is sensible to have one on business involvement in schools.”

Advertising and sponsorship activity in schools falls under the jurisdiction of the Advertising Standards Authority. The ASA has just reviewed its code of practice, and will relaunch it in the spring. A spokesman says there are tight controls on advertising to children in place, and they are unlikely to have been extended in the new code.

Last Friday, News International and Walkers Crisps launched a high profile cause-related campaign – “Free books for schools”. This allows schools to stock up their libraries by collecting tokens from NI’s papers and Walkers’ crisps packets.

Meanwhile, Lasting Impressions, which was the first to launch sponsored exercise books with its Jazzy Books, launched a new initiative – Jazzy Files – last week (MW November 26). Sixth-formers will be offered ringbinders which feature pictures of BT EasyReach pagers, and contain product information and a response mechanism.

Jazzy Files ringbinders are aimed at 16- to 18-year-olds. Lasting Impressions’ director Winton Rossiter says the company adheres to the NCC’s voluntary guidelines and the books are endorsed by the National Confederation of Parent Teachers Associations.

But many see this as the thin edge of the wedge, with activity likely to escalate when schools are connected to the Internet. The Government’s National Grid for Learning proposes to give every school Net access and every child an e-mail address. Dean Weller, director of Media Shop Holdings’ youth arm The First Age, says: “There is no cast-iron solution to protect children from the Internet advertisers clutches.”

Weller says in order to fulfil the Government’s plans, some of the sites will have to be funded by advertisers. He says local authorities would be able to run the local grid and manage mail to children’s personal e-mail addresses with software such as “Net Nanny”, but there will be loopholes.

“Expect stories in The Sun saying how paedophile networks got through to kids through a school Internet site,” says Weller.

A melodramatic example, maybe, but to avoid these extremes Weller says the Government should be laying down guidelines so everyone knows where they stand.

But Weller claims one reason why the Government is not keen to lay down the law is that the issue is contentious within the Labour Party: “If Tony Blair says it’s all right to advertise in schools, he will be accused of betraying our children.”

The NCC guidelines state that there should never be a direct call to buy a product, or to pester parents about buying a product. No merchandising slogans or logos other than for identification purposes should be included.

But what is there to stop unscrupulous operators selling through irresponsible programmes? At the moment, nothing, apart from the common sense of head teachers.

This “common sense” is something that seems to be restraining ad agencies and marketers. But with schools increasingly strapped for cash, “common sense” could well be swayed by a desperate need for equipment and resources.

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