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Fran Abrams and Judith Judd report on how commerce is creeping into education
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Is education being privatised by the back door? The question is a hardy perennial, of course. But there has been a radical change of ethos in the past 10 years that deserves close scrutiny. The dividing line between public and private sectors is less distinct. The commercial world has crept into every area of education.

University stationery stores compete with the big chains for the academics' business; teachers turn to Tesco for a new computer. The good headteacher must have both financial acumen and a clever business wheeze or two to keep the ship afloat. Schools, colleges and universities all make the best of the new world that has been forced upon them.

Local management of schools has swept away the world in which councils provided goods and services and in which schools never really knew their cost. Independence from local authorities has had a similar effect on further education colleges. Higher education cuts followed by growth in student numbers have sent the winds of commercial reality sweeping through universities. And the tendering out of public services has affected everything from cleaning and catering to the careers service.

Now the Private Finance Initiative is encouraging public institutions to find commercial partners. We look forward to the first Nike school sports hall, the first ICI science lab. One grant-maintained school is selling its sports field, a mile from its site, to a developer. In return, the developer will buy it a more convenient field and throw in a sports hall for free.

The benefits of such projects can be enormous, but it may not all be plain sailing. The City Technology Colleges programme, designed in the late Eighties to incorporate 20 new colleges, had difficulty in attracting sponsors and stopped at 15.

Despite all the changes, the core activities of education are still publicly funded and are likely to remain so. But while privatisation may not yet have reached the back door, it is certainly making its way up the garden path.

The $64,000 question is: does it matter? In this day and age little good can come of holding up our hands in horror at the idea of grubby commercialism tainting the pure white soul of our state education system. And after all, many schools were founded in the 19th century by business organisations such as the Worshipful Company of Grocers, for example. What does matter is the quality of education offered. Accepting business sponsorship is one thing. Pouring state funds into private companies' end-of-year profit figures is another. But bending the content of lessons or other activities to fit in with the aims of a school's financial backers is the thin end of the wedge.

Schools are not ivory towers, nor should they be. But the values that pupils absorb during their schooldays will stay with them for life. If this commercialism goes unchecked, the message writ large in their minds will be that the market rules.


Commercialism in British schools lags a long way behind that in the United States, but it is creeping forward. Last month the National Consumer Council said it was worried about the increase in product promotion in schools.

There are numerous examples of firms offering deals to schools from which both sides benefit. Sainsbury's has a scheme where schools can earn vouchers for equipment by bringing used carrier bags into stores. Tesco has offered vouchers for computers and WH Smith for school equipment.

The council, which warned schools to consider "the hidden agenda" of marketing firms before accepting their help, notes that fast-food firms are offering meal vouchers for academic achievement. At Hurstmere Secondary School in Sidcup, Kent, for instance, McDonald's last year offered a free hamburger, chips and a drink for students excelling in science. Marketing companies are providing promotional "goodie bags" of sweets or soft drinks.

Firms sponsor textbooks, project packs, software and videos, and companies such as Ford, Commercial Union and British Nuclear Fuels all turned up in Birmingham for this year's Education Show.

McDonald's has supplied a resource pack to all Humberside primary schools. Sainsbury's provides resource packs on the environment, animal welfare, a day in the supermarket and other topics.

In Wales, Welshpool High School in Powys has a lavishly equipped centre with computers and technology facilities, which has been financed partly by Massey Ferguson and Control Techniques, an electronic firm. The centre will be used by local firms for training staff as well as by pupils. There is a similar Massey Ferguson centre in Coventry.

Government policy has aimed to encourage companies to spend large sums on education. After the city technology college programme foundered, ministers announced that schools which could raise pounds 100,000 in sponsorship could become technology colleges or specialist modern language colleges with the Government providing pounds 100,000 in capital funding and an extra pounds 100 for each pupil. Between them, 20 new technology and language colleges have raised around pounds 2m worth of sponsorship. Schools must promise to continue links with sponsors, who must be involved in their development. Major sponsors include ADT, British Aerospace, British Telecom, Rolls Royce and Sony.

Gareth James, head of the professional advice department at the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Our advice to heads is that they should not become unwittingly involved in promoting companies' products. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Accepting help is one thing. Being intimidated by high pressure salesmanship is another."

The other difficulty with sponsorship, he adds, is that it disguises the fact that a lot of resources in schools now have to be provided from fund-raising rather than through taxation.


higher education

Universities have always been independent, and so they have always competed against other organisations for funding - for example, in applying to research councils for grants.

The higher education system is now linked to business at every level. One of the most high-profile national examples is the student loan scheme, run by a limited company set up specially to do the job after the banks pulled out.

The former polytechnics, which became universities in 1992, are in the forefront of moves to build links with the private sector, but many of the older institutions are not far behind.

There are few universities that do not now boast a science or technology park, for example. These parks work on a very simple theory - business units have a certain extra cachet to them if they are attached to a seat of learning. So companies move in, pay rent and use the university's name to sell their products.

Many campuses are also linking up with businesses to build new research facilities. A major company pays for the building, puts its name over the door and reinforces its public image by linking itself with the university. In return, the new centre carries out research that will benefit the donor company's interests and might have commercial value.

Sponsored professorial chairs give added respectability to a company while joint research ventures can be exploited for profit.


further education

Private enterprise can now be found in every area of the further education sector, which became independent of local authorities in 1993.

One of the most striking examples is the advent of Education Lecturing Services (ELS), a staffing agency that has more than 40,000 teachers in more than 100 colleges on its books. ELS, a non profit-making company, charges colleges a joining fee of pounds 6,000 in return for providing a database of part-time lecturers. ELS is recommended to colleges by the Colleges' Employers' Forum, CEF, which has been involved in a long-running dispute with lecturers over the introduction of new contracts.

Some facilities, such as cafeterias, are run by private companies that pay rent to the college and then take on both the risk of failure and, of course, the potential profit. Cleaning services can be provided by an outside agency, saving the college the worry of having to employ full- time cleaners all the year round when they may be closed some of the time during the academic holidays.

Further education is one of the areas in which the Government hopes the Private Finance Initiative will take hold. The Further Education Funding Council already has a register of potential projects, which amount to pounds 100m per year of private capital investment. It lists some 488 joint ventures in 172 colleges, ranging from a boiler conversion in Barnsley to a pounds 3.5m library resource centre at Bedford College.


careers service

Few parts of the education system have been as comprehensively shaken up as the careers service. Careers advice used to be provided by local education authorities, but in 1993 the responsibility was transferred to the Secretary of State for Employment, then Gillian Shephard.

The whole system has been put out to tender, and although most of the 42 contracts let so far have gone to partnerships between local authorities and Training and Enterprise Councils, four private concerns have been successful in 20 local authority areas.

Among the successful bidders is a company set up by the Grand Met Trust, which is negotiating a contract for the London boroughs of Greenwich, Lewisham, Southwark and Lambeth. The trust is partly funded by the food and drinks group, which owns Burger King and Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

The others are CfBT, which inspects schools; Nord Anglia Ltd, which has a variety of operations, including private schools and language teaching; and Career Enterprises Ltd, a partnership between Surrey careers service and a private company.

The CBI has welcomed the move, saying that careers advice to schools should be linked more closely to the needs of industry. But Cathy Bereznicki, chief executive of the Institute of Careers Guidance, says vulnerable clients could suffer. The long-term unemployed or those with special needs may need several consultations, for example, while officers may be under pressure to meet targets for interviewing every school leaver.