The government’s education policies are coming under increasing scrutiny as their repercussions filter through. I am yet to hear a teacher talk positively about Mr Gove and his plans to “liberate” the school system. Many people agree with the Tories that schools need to be set free from red tape, but many people worry that his agenda will push schools into the hands of private business with no educational expertise. Just recently the news broke that Murdoch et al down at News International were planning on funding an academy. Murdoch has long been infiltrating universities; but to see him make such a clear bid for a school is deeply worrying. This is not a new phenomenon though; our schools and our teenagers have had their education sold to big business for a number of years.
Throughout the UK subsidised vending machines have been popping up left, right and centre. It is a long-standing marketing technique for big brands to establish themselves in youth markets. Walker’s crisps have been long pushing their “books for schools” campaign where pupils and parents are encouraged to buy packets, collect tokens and redeem books for their local school. Is it any surprise that Walkers crisps came top in “ChildWise’s” poll for child brand recognition? 70% of nine to eleven year olds citied them first when asked to name a crisps brand. This figure rose to 93% with 15 and 16 year olds. Walkers are not the only ones in this form of marketing. We can see supermarkets, soft drinks and other house-hold names beginning to market in schools.
In 2001 Coca-Cola launched its “school plus” scheme. In exchange for funding, the schools would distribute booklets of vouchers for Coca-Cola’s products. JazzyMedia gives away books and diaries sponsored by BT, Adidas, Pepsi and other corporate behemoths. These diaries and books end up in 55% of all UK schools. To parents the idea of having the cartoon “purple Ronnie” on school books (I think one of school planners might have had this…It think) seems unproblematic. Yet there is a growing phenomena of brands (especially junk food) creeping into our schools. We can see the effect it has had on US education (where soft drink manufactures regularly forge multi-million dollar deals to ensure their products are available through schools). It is a widely acknowledged tactic to try and get products to become the “talk of the play ground” by getting popular teenagers to wear, eat or drink the latest products.
It is not just our state schools that are being invaded by big business. University institutions have been getting into bed with big business for years. Cambridge at one point for example, had their chair of chemical engineering employed by Shell, whilst their professorship in Organic Chemistry and Petroleum Science was employed by BP, staff in thermodynamics from ICI, their chair of Molecular Parasitology from Glaxo, a chair of Molecular science from Unilever, and a chair of Financial services from PWC. Rolls-Royce, Microsoft and Zeneca have all had labs inside Cambridge. Cambridge’s position is not unique, up and down the country, big business is slotting its employees into the highest sections of British Universities.
Is this a worrying phenomenon? Is brand exposure inherently bad? Although brand exposure is wide-spread and deep-rooted throughout our education system, is it something to be worried about? I would argue that young people, especially teenagers are battered by designer images that blunt their abilities to grow as free thinking creative individuals. The Branding of children creates an uniformed ideal of children that is often unsuitable for that age group. I would also argue that the private infiltration into our education system is also indicative of a much wider problem. The corporation is seizing power previously invested in the state and using this power to shape our lives to its own benefits. In education this materialises in a trend towards marketing and youth product placement. In Health this materialises in unnecessary and over stated insurance schemes. Hospitals, roads and prisons are being developed to suit the corporate need not the public good.
I think that we have a responsibility to protect our children from the over consuming society that we have developed into. I fear that the current government’s approach to education is letting us slip further down this slope. Education is a right, but also a privilege. It is something that should not be taken for granted and certainly not cheapened by being made into a commodity.