School ads may sell burgers and trainers

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The Independent Online
Pupils as young as 11 could be targeted with advertising for products such as fast food and sportswear on their school walls.

Three hundred secondary schools have signed deals which offer pounds 5,000 a year in return for providing 10 poster sites within their buildings.

The 5ft x 3.5ft poster boards will be placed wherever pupils congregate or pass by regularly, including corridors, libraries, gyms and dinner halls. Only classrooms will be out of bounds.

The company which promoted the scheme has drawn up a rough list of products it would favour, but heads and governing bodies will have final veto on the content of the posters. If they choose, the billboards could advertise burgers, trainers or sweet drinks and snacks.

The deal, which involves both state and private schools, will reignite debate over how far schools should accept creeping commercialisation to gain badly-needed extra cash.

Last May, a plan to offer free sponsored exercise books sporting corporate logos sparked opposition from teaching unions.

The poster plan also ran into controversy when it was first mooted last year. Teachers, politicians and consumer groups objected, and the Advertising Association assured all parties that the industry neither wanted nor needed such a scheme.

A year on, however, Imagination for School Media Marketing, the Essex- based company behind the scheme, has signed up 300 independent and state schools, mainly on five-year contracts.

Each will be sent a menu of the products and advertisements available, and heads and governors will be able to select and veto any on the list.

Imagination's list of preferred advertisers includes the Central Office of Information, which might provide anti-drugs or smoking health warnings; universities promoting courses; employers advertising evening or weekend jobs, and banks and building societies offering junior savings accounts.

Driving schools, bus companies, rail firms and toiletry manufacturers would also find favour, according to Len Gridley, Imagination's managing director.

A second list, described as "harmless but maybe a little more contentious", includes music retailers, food manufacturers, cinemas and "places to go", such as theme parks.

A so-called "banned list" would cover sugary drinks, confectionery and sportswear. However, Mr Gridley acknowledged that, if schools wished, they could accept advertisements for sports goods or fast-food chains.

"The head teachers have the ultimate veto," he said.

Many schools already lease drinks machines which feature bright advertisements for colas. The Department for Education and Employment says heads and governors are free to decide on advertising and sponsorship, provided they comply with broad National Consumer Council guidelines.

Imagination insists there has been no hard sell; schools have four months to change their minds before poster sites are installed in January. "The common denominator among all these schools is that they need money," Mr Gridley said.

Pindar School in Scarborough admits the lure of extra funds helped persuade it to sign up with Imagination.

However Peter Lancaster, head of business studies, believes the school will gain as much value by using the posters - to be confined to the business studies area - as a teaching resource.

"Our students will take them apart as part of their studies, examining why they have advertised in that way and whether it works. I think that makes it much safer because it is not just product placement."

The pounds 5,000 will help buy computer equipment. "When we have a chance to cover walls we can't afford to paint with bright and energetic posters we will not turn down this kind of option," Mr Lancaster said.