This week the Institute of Education hosts a one-day conference to investigate the role of business involvement in education. The event is being seen as a response to the growing question of whether business and commercial communications have a valid role within schools.
The Financial Times recently reported that the UK’s Consumers’ Association believes business has gone too far in sponsoring educational material and that a lack of adequate government guidelines is allowing British schools to become a “cut-price advertising medium”.
The newspaper quotes the CA’s consumer education officer as saying that many of the materials claiming to add value to the National Curriculum are in reality no more than “hard-nosed, heavily branded sales material”.
It is fruitless to argue that materials from commercial organisations which offer little or no benefit to schools should form part of National Curriculum work. Indeed, it is in the long-term best interests of advertisers that any sponsorship assistance they give to educational establishments should offer genuine value.
Equally it is important to avoid a knee-jerk reaction against business playing a constructive role. Today’s children are better info rmed than ever before. They are the first generation growing up with the Internet. The idea that they should be totally shielded from commercial communications within school confines is unrealistic and begins to look increasingly quixotic.
Students who are given the opportunity to enter into a constructive dialogue with commercial organisations while at school will arguably emerge better prepared for living and working within the real world. Many will work within business and communications jobs themselves and all will become consumers, making choices between brands and using commercial communications as part of their decision making.
It is therefore important that educationalists approach the question of the role of business and commercial communications with an open mind. It is often easy to make a direct link between so-called “pester-power” and advertising, yet there is clear evidence that children are much more strongly influenced by peer pressure and word of mouth.
In supporting this view, one of Europe’s leading authorities on children’s media consumption, Jeffrey Goldstein, psychology Professor at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, recently noted the current Europe-wide craze for yo-yos, which have had no advertising support.
Rules governing the involvement of the commercial sector in schools differ widely across Europe. Hopefully, this week’s conference will recognise the value that commercial organisations can bring to educational establishments and acknowledge the media literacy of children growing up in the age of information freedom.