School defends its tobacco cash

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Security passes for visitors to Archbishop Michael Ramsey comprehensive, in south London, bear the words: "Please note that the school operates a no smoking policy." For an institution sponsored by a tobacco company, that is a bold statement.

It would certainly not impress Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' health spokesman and the local MP. At his party's conference in Brighton last week, he berated the school for accepting pounds 100,000 from BAT Industries, the parent company of British American Tobacco.

Smoking, he said, killed as many people in a day as illicit drug use did in a year. "How on earth can this government justify funding secondary schools with the profits of sales of the fatal drug tobacco?" he asked.

Wendy Parmley, the Church of England school's head teacher, did not, however, accept the sponsorship lightly. She consulted six bishops before deciding to go ahead, and she reports that five were in favour.

She says the needs of her 800 pupils outweigh the moral difficulties involved in accepting tobacco sponsorship. Since the new school term began this month, they have had the benefit of three extra staff, four new science labs refurbished to industry standards, two music technology rooms and an area where they can learn about pneumatics. They can now study A-Level physics or GCSE electronics, neither of which were available before.

"There's an excitement, a buzz," Mrs Parmley says. "I am going to make sure my kids get the very best start in life."

A casual visitor would never know that the school was sponsored by a tobacco company. There are no logos over its door and no changes to its award-winning health education policy, which carries a strong anti-smoking message. Any child caught in school with cigarettes is subjected to a series of "gory" worksheets on their effects and a spell of "community service".

Once it had secured the pounds 100,000 BAT Industries sponsorship, the school was entitled to an equal amount from public funds, under the Government's Technology Colleges Initiative. It gets a further pounds 100 per pupil for each of the next three years. So, in total, the school stands to gain almost half a million pounds.

AMR, as it is known to staff and pupils, has all the problems that might be expected in inner-city Camberwell. Seven out of 10 pupils are entitled to free school meals; three out of 10 speak English as a second language.

When Mrs Parmley arrived four years ago, she set about raising standards. Within two years the proportion of children who achieve at least five high-grade GCSEs had risen from one in 17 to one in five, but there it stuck. Last year a sixth former, who applied to read computer science at Cambridge was told that, although she was bright enough, the lack of information technology facilities at the school had held her back.

A three-month search for sponsorship drew a blank. Then the diocesan director of education, Canon Gerald Greenwood, came to see Mrs Parmley with the news that BAT Industries had come forward.

BAT Industries, which has already pumped about pounds 2m into the Macmillan City Technology College on Teesside, insists that its aims are honourable.

Michael Prideaux, the firm's spokesman, says: "It's difficult to believe, but this is frankly as near to altruism as you get. People like Simon Hughes are saying there's no such thing as a free lunch and there must be a ghastly plot, but it really is not so."

Mr Hughes, however, is convinced that BAT Industries will use the scheme to show itself in a good light. He says: "The school needs to be aware that it is helping the continuing existence of sponsorship and advertising and lower taxation for tobacco companies.

"It's harder to tell pupils that they shouldn't smoke when the school takes its money from this sort of company," he added.