Leading Article: Books or principles? Heads must decide

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The Independent Online
WOULD you risk sacrificing your child's teeth for a computer, or maybe to stop the roof of the classroom falling in? Headteachers are under growing pressure to allow commercial interests into schools in order to generate additional funds. The latest symptom is the installation of Coca-Cola machines in primary schools, but the issue is not new. For some time, manufacturers of sweets and soft drinks have been working their way through the school gates by offering to share profits with schools desperate for money.

Other sectors of industry are getting the same idea. Tesco supplies vouchers for school computers to customers who spend more than pounds 25. W H Smith gives vouchers worth 10p for every pounds 2 spent. These can be used by primary schools to claim free books from the company. John Menzies and Boots are planning similar schemes.

Books are better for children than sweets and soft drinks, so some distinctions should be made. Schools owe it to children in their care to make an effort to educate them in healthy eating. The task seems fairly hopeless most of the time, but that is no reason to give up. The effects of diet on physical and mental development, behaviour and future health are now well enough established. Probably money spent on school meals would be more than saved in the future by lower demands on the National Health Service, better educational results, and possibly even less crime if American studies of the connection between diet and aggression are valid. Parents and teachers are, therefore, right to be worried when schools take money for encouraging bad eating or drinking habits. The British Dental Association is already protesting about the Coca-Cola machines. Local authorities should urge headteachers to resist the temptation these machines represent.

Schemes that provide books or computers are more benign but they, too, involve an intrusion of commercial pressures into primary schools that are not easy for children to understand and are liable to distort the choice of books and equipment. Headteachers can be forgiven for succumbing when the financial pressures on them are so intense. Somewhere there is a line beyond which it becomes wrong to bend educational principles in order to get more books or computers for the children, but it is not easy to define.

The commercial sponsors of these schemes are also operating in an ethical grey area. They can reasonably claim to be combining the pursuit of profits with charitable activity, but they are also exploiting the needs of children to promote their products where they should be competing on price and quality. If they really want to be charitable, they should simply donate some of their large profits directly to schools.

The principal responsibility, however, lies with the Government for underfunding education to such an extent that schools are led into temptation. Headteachers ought to be choosing their books on merit, guiding their pupils towards better eating and repairing the roof when necessary. As soon as pigs can fly, that ideal world will arrive.