Education Viewpoint: Beware] There's no such thing as a free computer

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The public relations industry sees education as a big area of sponsorship growth. But for schools and universities, sponsorship has ceased to be an extra; it is a necessity. Without it, schools go without basic educational tools.

Education ministers seem rather proud of this. They think of it as their contribution to rolling back the frontiers of the state. They talk complacently of the 'public-spirited businessmen' who pay for Britain's education system.

They ought to be ashamed of it. No one sponsors education out of philanthropy. A PR consultant recently called it 'a strong below-the-line marketing strategy where companies can get the name of their product or service to millions of potential and future clients in a positive way'.

In other words, our schools and universities depend on exposing their pupils to sales messages. Companies are encouraged to buy their way into schools in the same spirit that they might buy airtime on television. Schools are too poor to be choosy. They may not like the product, or think it is good for their children, but they cannot afford to turn down sponsorship.

Parents, too, are manipulated. If you want your child's school to be well equipped, you must shop at certain places. Tesco pioneered the voucher system. Parents received a voucher for every pounds 25 spent in the store. For a top-of-the- range computer, a school's parents had to spend vouchers to the value of pounds 100,000. The company talked of how it was 'giving away' computers, while its standard profit margin was 7.1 per cent.

Many parents switched to Tesco, and bought something extra if their bill came to just under a multiple of pounds 25. The company declined to give vouchers on petrol, for which profit margins are low.

Is there anything wrong with such a scheme? Yes. Computers are a necessity. If Tesco, not the state, is to provide them, then in areas where people cannot afford its prices, or to measure their shopping in pounds 25 units, schools will suffer.

Sponsored teaching materials are an inexpensive way of reaching young customers. Schools do not have to pay for the sponsored pack from Sega - heavily branded, and including excerpts from Sega's newest game. Sega's marketing for its very expensive products goes through the classroom, therefore, to pupils whose parents can afford to buy it. It also goes, of course, to pupils whose parents cannot afford it. The message of television advertising - that the good things in life are only for the rich - is now being transmitted in classrooms throughout the land.

Nor do schools pay for a Sugar Bureau pack, which has been attacked by dentists for playing down the damage sugar does to teeth.

Many schools have done deals with local outfitters. They send parents to a particular shop, allow the shop to sell inside the school, call it the 'official' school outfitter - and get a rake- off from each item sold. Parents often end up paying more for their school clothing. So the scheme becomes a way of charging money to send your children to state schools.

Other schools accept money in return for sending advertising material home by 'pupil post'. It is an ad-man's dream - precisely targeted marketing - and sometimes available at bargain-basement prices from heads who do not know the market price of what they have to sell.

Schools exist for children's benefit, only secondarily for that of their future employers, and not at all for those who want to sell children things. Our education system will not recover until we have a government that understands this.