Unlike the legion of British companies that have turned covetous eyes towards the captive markets of the nation's classrooms in the past few years, AOL was not at all shifty about its motives. The point, its managing director explained, was that pupils would go home and tell their parents about this great new way of buying homework help, chat-lines and games. These parents would then be pressurised into shelling out an average subscription of pounds 120 a year.
The organisation has just arrived in Europe, and the much stronger links between commerce and schools in the United States drive its approach. And the Americans are far less squeamish than the British about the idea of allowing the rarefied air of the classroom to be tainted by the grubby world of marketing. In the US, businesses make full use of every opportunity to grab customers while they are young. For example, huge numbers of American schools have taken up an offer of a free television set on condition that they show their pupils a 20-minute educational programme each day with three minutes of commercial advertising inserted into it.
We have not yet gone so far. But as financial pressures on schools have intensified, so have the pressures on them to compensate by allowing companies to advertise their products through them in return for educational goods or services rendered.
Each morning, headteachers sift their post and bin a huge volume of what most regard as junk mail. They are bombarded with free samples of everything from games to fizzy drinks, classroom packs bearing blatant advertising and offers of "educational" trips round supermarkets and sweet factories.
Such materials have multiplied tenfold since the 1988 Education Reform Act. Local management of schools has brought an end to the days when a headteacher ordered books and equipment through the local authority and barely even knew its cost. And the demands of the national curriculum have left many cash-starved schools in desperate need of the latest resources.
Increasingly, the sifting process is becoming a search for anything that might prove useful. Although many teachers are wary of commercial influence, packs such as the one produced a few years ago by the Sugar Bureau, suggesting uses for white sugar, have found their way into classrooms. Parents are cajoled into collecting Tesco vouchers for computers, and WH Smith tokens for books and equipment.
The old dictum that the state pays for education and that no one else should try to muscle in has long since broken down. Schools that cannot teach the curriculum because they lack the relevant materials, or that cannot render their pupils computer literate on antiquated equipment, can hardly be blamed for accepting help from business.
But most agree that there must be a sticking point. The National Consumer Council, which will bring out a new checklist for schools in a few months' time, says that educational materials or services bear the teacher's authority and should not be used blatantly to sell products. It is up to teachers to point out that while cereals may be good for you, Kellogg's, say, is not the only brand.
What does matter, though, is the quality of the education that schools offer. Accepting sponsorship is one thing. Bending the contents of lessons or other activities to fit in with the aims of a school's commercial sponsors is quite another.
There is little point in holding up our hands in horror at the thought of an American company using our schools to sell its services. AOL could spend the pounds 400,000 cost of putting 3,000 schools online on advertising on children's television, and schools would see no benefit at all.
But the firm's arrival in this country must sound a warning to both teachers and parents. The values that children learn at school will stay with them for life. And if commercialism is allowed to go unchecked, the message writ large in their minds will be that the market rules.Reuse content