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Commerce in schools put under spotlight

 

Polly Curtis

Guardian.co.uk

May 19, 2008
 

An inquiry ordered by the schools secretary, Ed Balls, into the impact of the commercial world on children is to investigate the government's own policies of encouraging schools to link up to businesses and setting up sponsored academies.

David Buckingham, a professor at the Institute of Education, University of London and a leading authority on children and the media, said that the "privatisation" of schools could be affecting children's education.

Balls commissioned Buckingham to conduct an inquiry as an important part of the government's flagship children's plan, published last December. Buckingham said the review would examine every aspect of marketing to children, including evidence that pressure began before birth as parents were encouraged to buy baby equipment. In his brief, children's wellbeing is defined as including their "health, education, training and recreation" opportunities.

"The involvement of commercial companies in the running of schools - that's something which potentially has implications for children's wellbeing," he said.

"From my point of view commercial resources in classrooms - Shell's introduction to the oil industry, Coke machines in schools - there's a continuum from there to commercial companies that provide school meals, to commercial companies being involved in education on all sorts of levels including management. This is a really big issue in the States, where it's much further advanced than here and people are very heavily monitoring that."

He acknowledged that ministers, who commissioned the review to look at all aspects of the commercial world's effect on children's lives, might "not like it", but said it was crucial to look at all methods of covert marketing to children.

The move follows the controversy over the government's decision to allow firms to sponsor academies. Carphone Warehouse, Microsoft, Dixons and Granada Learning are all running academies. The schools minister, Lord Adonis, has said that every school should be in partnership with a business, and the government is promoting trust schools, which see businesses helping to run and advise schools.

Buckingham said the links went further than academies. Firms were increasingly sponsoring school sport, music classes and homework clubs, in what amounted to "privatising" state schools, he said.

In the US there has been controversy over a school scheme called Channel One, which involved the company behind it lending TV equipment to thousands of schools which, in return, became committed to showing a 12-minute news programme heavily laden with advertising. Buckingham said there were signs that British schools could go in that direction.

The review will also examine the increasing "edutainment" market, which has seen a rise in "baby brain" and early phonics toys for children. Buckingham suggested this could be driven by government policy. "If children are tested at the age of four, parents are anxious about [their] reaching the level, so investment in your child's education is getting younger and younger."

Buckingham said there was convincing evidence that the amount of marketing to children was intensifying and it was happening at a younger age, but it could not be blamed for all of society's ills. "There's a narrative here that we're all going to hell, children are going to hell and it's the media and marketing taking them there," he said. "That's a strong argument - one of the problems is that it presumes there was a golden age ... that image is actually inaccurate."

The children's plan promised that the review would produce evidence to help parents navigate the "modern commercial world".

Buckingham's inquiry will report next year, with interim findings expected before Christmas.

 

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