Make way for the lollipop lady with the logo

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Fact, children: your prosperity depends on the cumulative performance of private companies, importing, exporting, buying and selling, advertising and sponsoring resource packs for schools. Children need to learn that lesson, their livelihoods will depend on it. Sponsorship in education, as in health, is not just inevitable, it is welcome - especially if it breeds better understanding of the mainsprings of material advance.

Schools ought to be preparing children for life with Cadbury's, Halifax and Tesco. There is no other way. We live in, and they are growing up into, a corporate culture. Schools, parents, common sense ought to arm them to discriminate, to read subtexts. Most children are indeed robust consumers. They surf in a sea of signs and images with an aplomb that adults can only envy. They define "cool". Hard sells in school and company logos all over the playground just won't work. What was striking in some of the examples in yesterday's report from the National Consumer Council was the crudity of the messages in companies' material for schools compared with, say, their television advertising. Such disparities are not lost on most children.

They may be on teachers' and consumer groups. Too many of those entrusted with the formation of tomorrow's consumers and employees find the facts of economic life unpalatable. Call it capitalism or private enterprise, the system, the one and only system, depends upon company performance. So: to cross the road under the supervision of a lollipop man or woman whose mac bears a logo; to travel to the school playing fields in a minivan given by a company gift; to consult a doctor whose pen set bears the name of a leading pharmaceutical company: there is nothing counter-cultural about any of that. Sponsorship is fine, provided certain principles of public service are not undermined and children or vulnerable patients are not treated as a captive audience to be seduced or lied to.

The problem with the Tory approach to bringing the private and public sectors together, through the Private Finance Initiative, for example, has been twofold. One, it has been dogmatic; and two, it has rested on a years-long campaign to belittle the ethic of public service. What government ministers have failed to realise is that the stronger the values and conventions that underpin the state, the more secure and welcome is likely to be the marriage of public purpose and private money.

Education and health care are not backwaters, distant from the mainstream of life. Education is preparation; health care is restoration. Neither the classroom nor the surgery is isolated from the world. Too many graduates of the schools and the universities stumble blinking into daylight ill- equipped to find or make work for themselves. Which is not to advocate narrow vocationalism - in the modern economy it would be dysfunctional. It is, however, to lay a serious charge at the door of teachers and professors.

They could start to change for the better by being a lot less starchy about the business of sponsorship. What teacher worth his or her salt could not turn - one of the NCC's examples - a crude advert by a chocolate- maker into an exciting lesson about business, mass communications or dental hygiene? Problems clearly arise if all the teacher has to go on is sponsored material. The limiting case is where a pristine public purpose (say, teaching the national curriculum) can only be carried out thanks to unpredictable private donations. The key test for sponsorship, as for the Government's Private Finance Initiative, is whether it is additional money.

There is no point pretending that there is some golden rule identifying, say, a minimum unit cost per pupil, or per patient: that is not how public finance works in a parliamentary democracy working with annual budgets. There exists, none the less, a notional minimum necessary to pay for decent levels of provision. Private sponsorship must bolt on to this, not substitute for it. Thus it is always going to be most acceptable on the periphery. A school that cannot pay for science textbooks out of its budget is in trouble; a school that gets industry to sponsor the crossing patrol outside (or organises a rota of parents) has broken no principle.

Spotting the point at which the principle of adequacy is breached won't always be easy. The work of general practitioners is already cross-hatched by pharmaceutical company payments; GPs get freebies, gifts and what not. As a result, we know that the NHS drugs bill is bigger than it need be, but we know, too, that the British pharmaceutical industry is still world- class. Would it be outrageous if, as the Department of Health is now pondering, GPs' nurses were sponsored? The answer is probably not. The services provided by GPs are already diverse. As this week's Audit Commission report found, some are using the freedom of fundholding to good effect. Nurse sponsorship might have the effect of further differentiating community medicine. Down that road lies increased inequality of provision. Sooner or later that becomes dangerous in a service the essence of which is predictable standards of service for all comers.

Only a hair-shirt puritan (they still exist in numbers in the trade unions and the health and education hierarchies) objects to the principle of sponsorship. It is the practice that needs watching. It becomes worrisome if it leads to unacceptable variation in basic standards of public service provision. Health and education are not homogeneous; they can and ought to differ in local circumstances. Sponsorship ought to be part of that "natural" variation. But parents in Devizes and Davyhulme, like patients in Barking and Bassetlaw, retain a right to expect uniformity in the core of what schools and doctors provide.