Chainstore vouchers tighten big business grip on schools

'PESTER POWER' is about to hit parents in a big way. Schoolchildren and their mothers will be the targets this autumn of a series of sales promotions, launched under the banner of helping financially hard-pressed schools.

The sudden enthusiasm for 'school vouchers' by three chainstores and a fish-finger manufacturer follows the success of Tesco's 'Computers for Schools' promotion last year, but is bound to fuel the controversy over marketing pressures on schools. Many educationalists see such ploys as the latest example of a culture of commercialism affecting the education system.

Last week it was revealed that Coca-Cola machines are being installed in primary schools to help balance their budgets.

Between now and October, W H Smith, John Menzies, Boots and Bird's Eye will all be offering vouchers for school equipment with purchases. Three are offering books; the other, sports equipment. All the schemes are modelled on Tesco's computer voucher offer, which the store repeated in May.

'Pester power' - the ability of children to nag their parents into purchases they do not want - has become a significant marketing tool.

David Rebbitt, head of Uckfield Community School in East Sussex, is an enthusiastic fund-raiser but said: 'Tesco vouchers are a total load of eyewash. They were of no value to us at all. It is a smart marketing move on somebody's part. We collected the vouchers, but frankly it was mainly to make the parents feel they were doing some good for the school. If you really want to raise money you have to do it properly. This is piddling around at the edges.'

Uckfield, with 1,100 pupils, earns pounds 10,000 a year from commercial ventures, grants, sponsorship and advertising in school corridors.

Gethin Lewis, head of Gabalfa primary school, Cardiff, said: 'I have grave misgivings about a school being seen to promote a particular supermarket or shop. The stores are in it to make money. If they really wanted to support schools they would give the schools money or equipment instead of putting pressure on parents to shop with them.'

Some head teachers are sceptical about the vouchers because of the time and effort staff have to spend collecting them and filling in forms. The biggest criticism of the Tesco scheme is that it favoured schools in middle-class areas where parents could afford to spend more than pounds 25 at a time.

Rachel Hodgkin, policy officer of the National Children's Bureau, said: 'The inevitable consequence is that rich schools will get richer and poor schools poorer. It is grossly unfair. We ought to be very worried about this sort of thing. Computers and school library books are not frivolous luxuries and they should be statutory provision in schools. They should not be provided by supermarket chains.'

Few head teachers, however, have turned down the vouchers. Peter Wells, head of London's biggest comprehensive, Crown Woods School, said: 'We are approached all the time by firms wanting to get in on the act. Of course we will collect the vouchers. But we ended up giving 80 Tesco vouchers to Barnardo's because the computers would not have worked on our system.'

In the United States 'pester power' has spawned a textbook, 'Kids as Consumers - A Handbook of Marketing to Children' by James McNeal, which is regarded as the bible of teeny- consumerism.

Caroline Yaxley, a Norwich mother of four, said 'These vouchers have definitely led to competition between children to try to see who can take the most into school.

'They are a good idea, but as soon as my children see a Tesco they want to go in. Some parents are being pushed in to shop where they don't want to go.'

The store vouchers certainly do not seem to represent a bargain. Tesco gave away one voucher with every pounds 25 spent. To collect enough vouchers for a top-of-the- range computer, parents between them would have had to buy groceries worth pounds 125,000.

Last year the supermarket chain 'gave away' 3,000 computers and 10,000 other items worth pounds 3m after redeeming 20 million vouchers. But it acknowledges that the scheme is not altruism. 'We would not do a promotion like this if it was not profitable for us,' said Sylvia Laible, in charge of the scheme. 'The fact that we are doing it a second time round must mean something.'

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