UK: MARKETING RETURNS TO THE CLASSROOM. - Many learning materials - books, videos, interactive software - currently in use in schools are provided free of charge by private-sector companies. How effective is this forms of marketing - and is it ethical?

by Nick Hasell.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Many learning materials - books, videos, interactive software - currently in use in schools are provided free of charge by private-sector companies. How effective is this forms of marketing - and is it ethical?

Apart from the small blue triangular logo on the cover it could be any school project pack. It is the logo, however, that explains both its origins and its presence in over one-third of the nation's primary schools. The pack - a cross-curricular project on food-packaging for 7-11 year olds - is produced and paid for by Tetra Pak, the Swedish packaging giant. It is one of several thousand such learning materials - from books and videos to interactive software - currently used in schools and provided free or at reduced cost by private-sector companies. Motives differ: Tetra Pak wishes 'to position itself as a reliable resource for education'; others admit to harder commercial goals, from increasing brand awareness to attracting future customers. Yet just how effective - and ethical - a form of marketing is it?

There is nothing particularly new in companies providing school materials: both BP and Shell, for example, have supported education for over 25 years. What is unprece-dented is the greater role played by the private sector following the 1988 Education Reform Act. The introduction of the National Curriculum, the devolution of budgetry control to schools and an increasing emphasis on vocational education have all served to boost demand for materials. And what is currently being spent is being targeted with much greater precision.

The role of the private sector has not always met with acclaim, however. Four years ago the Sugar Bureau fell famously foul of educationalists when it sent packs to primary schools that advocated adding sugar to drinks. The Royal Bank of Scotland similarly faced criticism when it sponsored note-books with its name on the back. 'It was seen as an attempt to indoctrinate pupils at a time when they were most vulnerable,' says the RBS's Alwyn James.

Today, not only has the attitude in schools gradually warmed towards corporate involvement but companies themselves - with the aid of specialist education consultancies - have taken greater heed of teachers' requirements. 'Resource materials are now much more focused in terms of curricular relevance,' claims Duncan Smith, a director of one such consultancy, Crystal Presentations. 'There is also much more of a genuine partnership with schools in developing the materials.' And companies can respond quickly. 'A conventional textbook can take four to five years to produce,' says Peter Murphy, MD of Educational Project Resources, whose clients include TSB, SmithKline Beecham and Procter & Gamble. 'Here we can provide materials in a matter of months.' But what sort of return can they expect on their investment? Nick Fuller, MD of Educational Communications, cites the potential potency of educational sponsorship. 'For the second stage of the National Curriculum there are two and a half million children in 21,000 schools. If you reach 50% of those pupils you're talking about a very significant level of brand awareness.' Others point to more readily quantifiable results: Texas Instruments, for example, now provides 80% of the calculators in primary schools - the result of what it describes as one of its most effective marketing programmes for 20 years.

For most, however, the payback is hard to gauge. Whether a company seeks to enhance its image or attract future customers it's unlikely to feel any short-term benefit. The only option, it seems, is to sit back and wait.

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