How long before the phonics books are sponsored by Chewits?
It sounds like the beginning of a schools journalist in-joke, but this is a genuine question I have asked myself, following a series of unsettling news stories.
First, it emerged that back in my home town of Peterborough, the dean of the cash-strapped Norman cathedral had agreed for it to be used as the venue for a posh launch event for BMW. There were actual cars parked incongruously in the nave, surrounded by clouds of dry ice. Outside its glorious West front, cars were displayed on every scrap of well-tended ecclesiastical lawn, with fairy lights erected all around. Predictably, this caused outrage and disgust across the town, although some praised the dean’s efforts to raise funds in tough times. The dean, when faced with the criticism, claimed it was done “respectfully” because “no sales took place”. He pointed out that the cathedral already has a shop and Fair Trade stand, so what, really, was the big difference? I laughed out loud when the local paper quoted him saying: “If Jesus is Lord at all, then he is Lord of BMW as well as of Peterborough Cathedral… We do not believe that God can be contaminated by the presence of a new car”.
Whatever his strained rationale for this ghastly endeavour, I felt the management of the cathedral had gone a step too far. Something about driving a spanking new Mini Countryman up the flagstones just seemed, well, a bit off.
The taste-free episode got me thinking about what the limits of commercialisation in schools might be...as funds fall in real terms, and additional dosh is pumped only towards free schools and grammars. What might headteachers be driven to in the coming years? We’ve already had the stories of families asked to make hefty financial contributions. Some heads have left, refusing to compromise – or sell their souls - in the face of what they see as government neglect of the system.
But for those headteachers and bodies managing schools who remain and are increasingly desperate to keep courses running and the lights on – what would be their limit? Would you be happy if Nestle held a chocolate bar launch event in a school? What about representatives from computer game companies paying to hand out goody bags during assembly? What about charging for parents’ evenings (the teachers have to be paid...) or fining children in the wrong uniform? How about charging “education tourists” in the system who were not born in the UK? Or renting out the school hall to the local branch of UKIP? And if the academy chain to which your school belonged insisted on you doing any of the above, would you rebel? It's sure if you opposed fundraising efforts you would be accused of being an "enemy of promise" intent on frustrating the "social mobility agenda".
Who knows where we might end up. No one imagined the Tories would be so effective at breaking up and effectively privatising vast chunks of the education system in such a short time. Lord Nash, the unelected businessman who seems to be in charge of schools, has expressed his belief that schools need to be run more like ruthless businesses and less like humane, supportive places of learning. Headteachers, he said, were too keen to offer staff “the benefit of the doubt” (ignoring the fact that this benefit of the doubt is the only thing keeping any sort of living breathing teacher in front of many classes).
Maybe it is only a matter of time before schools have their “Peterborough cathedral moment” and we allow Toy’s R Us to promote their goods during circle time and the phonics books are all sponsored by Chewits. Yeah, my son would love that.