The Government may be enthusiastic, but even cash-strapped schools seem
wary of allowing ads into the classroom. John Tylee on the moral dilemma
taxing academia and the advertising sector
Like thousands of other head teachers throughout the country, Pat
McDermott is having to decide whether to open his school gates to the
encroaching commercial world or slam them firmly in its face.
McDermott took charge of St Anne’s Roman Catholic High School for Girls
in Enfield, on the outer reaches of surburban North London, two years
ago with a reformist agenda and a mission to provide quality but cost-
effective education for his 950 pupils.
Ask him if the need for financial stringency would ever tempt him to
augment the school’s income by allowing advertising to appear in
classrooms and corridors - as the Government would now permit him to do
- and his answer is, understandably, equivocal.
His board of governors almost certainly wouldn’t stand for it, he
replies, and it would provoke the outrage of many parents who have come
to play a highly influential role in school life.
All his own instincts, too, scream out against the idea. ‘It doesn’t
rest easily with me. Exposing children to advertising in a classroom for
up to four hours a day is exploitation amounting almost to brainwashing.
What’s more, children haven’t the intellectual capacity to deal with
Today, however, lofty principles come with a price-tag. The fact is that
St Anne’s costs pounds 2.5 million a year to run and McDermott
acknowledges that he can’t afford to discard any opportunities of extra
Also, in a rapidly changing and evolving world where his charges can
expect to change jobs up to ten times in their working lives, is it
right for schools to isolate pupils from the commercialism they will
have to confront soon enough, he asks.
The controversy about whether or not schools such as St Anne’s should be
free to accept advertising was brought into sharp focus last week with
the news that an Essex marketing company was offering head teachers the
chance to earn up to pounds 10,000 a year for making 100 poster sites
Cheryl Gillan, a junior education minister, stoked the flames by
implying that the Government had no objection in principle to the idea
as long as head teachers and governors agreed.
Imagination for School Media Marketing claims that between 600 and 700
schools have already indicated an interest and McDermott predicts that a
significant amount will be prepared to do a deal. ‘I’ve no doubt there
will be some takers,’ he says. ‘There are enough cash-strapped schools
around that are desperate to preserve staffing levels.’
The outcry against the scheme from teaching unions, parent groups and
consumer lobbyists has been predictable and some of the reaction has
been knee-jerk. Not least from Nigel Griffiths, Labour’s consumer
affairs spokesman, who called for the Advertising Standards Authority to
bring down the full weight of its wrath on the initiative.
Caroline Crawford, the ASA’s communications director, says: ‘Labour sees
us as the cure for all advertising’s ills, which is flattering but
misdirected. We have no power to say where ads can and cannot appear.’
Curiously, it is the Government rather than the ad industry that is
taking the flak for prodding schools into making pacts with the Devil.
As Nigel de Gruchy, the general secretary of the National
Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, says: ‘It’s
outrageous that schools have been reduced to such penury by the
Government that it’s prepared to acquiesce to them dabbling in the
Meanwhile Doug McEvoy, de Gruchy’s counterpart at the National Union of
Teachers, warns of the possible insidious growth of the scheme as one
school feels obliged to take part merely to keep up with a neighbour.
Their anger is shared by Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of the
National Food Alliance, which monitors confectionery advertising to
children. ‘It’s a scandal,’ she fumes. ‘There’s only so much that
parents will take and this idea is way over the line.’
Agency executives too, particularly those with children of school age,
recoil from the prospect. Their big fear is the inevitable incident when
a school accepts a totally inappropriate piece of advertising and the
resulting publicity which might well jeopardise the self-regulatory
‘You have to ask if it’s worth the risk,’ Ken New, the Abbott Mead
Vickers BBDO media director, says, while Adrian Birchall, the chairman
of the Media Centre, warns of ‘communication going a bridge too far’.
Andrew Cracknell, the chairman of Ammirati Puris Lintas, dismisses the
whole idea as a minefield ‘too dangerous for advertisers to enter’, and
Carol Reay, the chief executive of Mellors Reay and Partners, declares
that ‘even if there was a miraculous way of resolving the difficulties
I’d still want no part of it’.
Hysteria aside, the truth is that advertisers already have a firm
foothold in schools. Removing them is likely to be as successful as
trying to put toothpaste back in a tube. The question now is how the
relationship between education and the business sector can be
In the US, advertising in schools has been a phenomenon for the past
five years. The catalyst was the marketing entrepreneur, Chris Whittle,
whose Channel One cable network offers participating high schools free
In exchange, students arriving in class each day watch a ten-minute news
and current affairs programme specially tailored for them, which is
punctuated with a couple of commercials for products ranging from soft
drinks to sneakers.
‘They’re the sort of ads you see every day on MTV,’ explains Julie
Halpin, general manager of Kid Connection, the child marketing
subsidiary of Saatchi and Saatchi in New York. ‘There’s been some
opposition to it, but most parents are pretty relaxed.’
American companies also have access to schools via the National Book
Covers Programme, which allows advertising to appear on specially
donated text-book covers.
In Britain, commercial sponsorship of school learning material is now
commonplace. So too are retail promotions by companies such as
Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Boots, whereby the size of shopper’s spend
determines the number points they can accumulate to enable their
children’s school to buy equipment. The NUT opposes such schemes,
however, claiming they pitch child against child.
In the end, it may be that advertising in schools will be the result of
evolution rather than revolution. Nick Phillips, director general of the
Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, says: ‘Advertising comes a
long way behind the critical discussions about the role of commercial
enterprises on school premises.’
McDermott would agree. St Anne’s is currently exploring an alliance with
Barclays through which the bank would provide help for the business
studies department, offer work experience and donate pounds 1 to school
funds for every pupil who opens an account.
But he is determined the school will not sell itself short. ‘Barclays
can’t just expect to sign us up and move on,’ he says. ‘We’ve just spent
pounds 45,000 installing computers on our two sites. The bank’s
networking expertise would have been invaluable to us and we’d want to
take advantage of it in future.’
For the time being, though, it might be worth recalling what happened
five years ago when NHS reforms gave birth to self-governing hospital
trusts eager to embrace the market economy.
A call to the Department of Health: what happened to that grand scheme
for turning hospitals into the most exciting new ad medium in 25 years?
‘I’m afraid,’ a DHSS executive says, ‘that it just never caught on.’
The growth of sponsored learning packs in British schools prompted the
National Consumer Council to issue new guidelines on their use in May. A
Cadbury pack entitled ‘The World of Chocolate’ contains heavily branded
free sheets, accompanied by activity sheets which encourage children to
sample a wide range of chocolates, while a McDonald’s teaching pack asks
pupils to search for McDonald’s products in a word puzzle. Retailers
also regularly target pupils’ parents with voucher schemes of the sort
pioneered by Tesco in 1992. The Tesco initiative, which is still going,
provides an Acorn computer for every 2,500 vouchers collected by
parents. As they receive a voucher for every pounds 25 spent, this makes
the ‘cost’ of each pounds 500 computer around pounds 62,500.
Sainsbury’s, Boot’s, W. H. Smith, Asda and the Co-op have all run
The teacher’s perspective
There is an ice-cream van parked outside my school. Each day at 3.30pm,
waiting parents and their pre-school and buggy-bound offspring begin a
daily battle of wills, as the war-cry of ‘Can I have an ice-cream?’
commences. It is an ideal spot for observing ‘pester power’ in action.
Every afternoon we witness the same tantrums and accusations of
unfairness, meanness, and varying degrees of emotional breakdown among
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for ice-cream as a treat or, I admit, a
bribe. What teachers object to is the van’s location. There is a feeling
that the way this chap is capturing his target market is exploiting us
and our children. But imagine if we opened our gate and allowed him into
The issue of allowing commerce, including branded advertising, into
schools provokes instinctive objections from parents and teachers.
As an infant-school teacher, I have an enormous responsibility for my
pupils’ education, not only as laid out overtly in the national
curriculum, but also via the ‘hidden curriculum’ covering values,
beliefs and attitudes concerning society outside the school.
‘Equal opportunity’ is more than a buzzword in schools: it is central to
the ethos of daily school life. Teachers work hard to raise the self-esteem and acceptance of others, and to celebrate each individual, among
children from vastly different backgrounds. Children are discouraged
from competing with each other and materialism is frowned upon.
In pupils’ eyes, if a teacher says something, it is fact. Ideas are
validated simply by being in school. Likewise, parents assume that
promotional literature stuffed in their child’s rucksack, alongside the
squashed banana and latest masterpiece, has the blessing of the
educational establishment. In my time, I have dished out ads for kids’
holiday courses, freebie parent newspapers, charity competitions and
Often, though, schools chuck out promotional bumph, although deals
offering educational value and low-key branding will be accepted. If
there is anything in it for them, schools usually cannot afford not to
participate. One school I worked in makes children cross out mistakes
rather than erase them because it cannot afford to replace rubbers.
Another I know received 150 free ‘lucky bags’ from a retailer filled
with goodies and Pritt sticks. As Pritt sticks are like gold dust they
were kept, and the rest of the contents binned.
Teachers are not stupid. Many have become disillusioned with big
‘coupons for schools’ promotions, realising that retailers gain more
than the schools. The task of sorting the mountains of vouchers on these
promotions usually falls to parents, already burdened with school fund-
raising. Even teachers have to dip into their own pockets to buy
resources to supplement topics where school stocks fail.
Advertisers should remember that parents’ and teachers’ pockets are
being drained enough as it is without additional badgering from product
hungry children. They might, however, score in poorer areas, where
schools with cash-strapped parents may be more tempted to sell ad sites
to raise funds which their parents cannot.
‘Pester power’ is awesome, even among the very young. In ‘show and tell’
time, infants bring a treasured possession into school to show the
class. As crowds of excited faces gaze upon yet another plastic Disney
character from McDonald’s, anything uncommercial, like a mummified frog
skeleton, stands out and I seize on it.
Power Ranger lunch boxes brim with Pocahontas yoghurts, Peperamis and
Penguins. Over lunch, children berate others for having maths computer
games rather than ‘fighting stuff’. Peer pressure is a driving force -
these children don’t have the cash themselves, but are skilled
If advertisers had their way, how could I teach my class about healthy
eating when ads for sweets line the playground? Or encourage families to
share books when posters for videos beckon through the window?
At present, advertisers do not target children in schools directly,
preferring to concentrate on their parents, but we should not be naive
about their intentions for in-school advertising - in my previous
career, as an account planner, I would have rubbed my hands in glee at
such an opportunity.
Children are exposed to so much outside the school gates, let’s keep the
inside special. Unless, that is, you’re selling healthy Lion King
lettuce or Toy Story broccoli, in which case you can drive your van into
my playground any time you like.
Lynette Blackhurst, a former account planner, is a primary school