Raine, G. (2007) ‘Commercial activities in primary schools: a quantitative study’, in Oxford Review of Education, 33 (2): 211-31.
[This is a basic survey of the extent of commercial activities, defined by the author, going on in primary schools in a random sample in a region of England. The survey is conducted competently enough, and shows that there is quite a bit of participation in commercial activities. Perhaps the most surprising finding is that schools who are engaging in a health promotion campaign are also quite likely to be involved in voucher collection schemes run by dubious food companies such as Nestle and Walker. However the study then ends with an all purpose rant about the evils of commercial activities of any kind and their dire effects on children, mostly citing all sorts of other studies. The data or actually gathered here is nowhere near capable of supporting this rant, but Raine does his best, delivering basic descriptions of commercial activity and more or less inviting the reader to be shocked and horrified].
Commercial activities are defined in particular initially as ‘those business practices in schools which implicitly or explicitly advertise or market products to pupils, test products on children, or promote a company, its agenda or viewpoints on particular issues’ (211), [which introduces a condemnatory note from the beginning. This particular definition is not strictly adhered to either, but is allowed to contaminate with sinister meaning those other activities studied as well]. There is a lack of published work to show her widespread commercial activities are in UK schools. There is a general worry about such activities. This is fleshed out by saying that everyone now agrees that the hidden curriculum can be important, and commercial activities may form part of it. There is a general worry about nutrition and concern about obesity. Commercial activities may have an influence on children. The government has tried to involve schools in its National Healthy School Standard/ Scheme but has also promoted commercial activities.
The questionnaire was used to establish whether or not particular activities were taking place, offering simple yes, no, or don’t know options. More open questions asked about policies. The questions were validated by an expert panel of head teachers, and piloted. A sampling frame was constructed of all primary schools in a particular region, and then a particular schools were selected using a random number generator. However, only 39 percent responded. Data were analyzed using spss, especially the relationship between involvement with commercial activities, participation in the health promotion scheme, and the number of pupils eligible for free school meals. Non response bias was checked by comparing responding schools with the entire sample on the basis of schools size, tests scorers and religious status [why those?]: No significant differences were found.
Results are then provided, rather exhaustively. Most schools were participating in the health promotion scheme, with over half actually working towards accreditation at the time of survey. Results for eligibility for free school meals seems to show quite a range, with 45% of schools having less than 10% of pupils in that category.
Commercial activities were specified as (1) various collection schemes, where tokens can then be exchanged for school equipment. 85% of schools had participated. The most frequent scheme was Tesco’s computers for schools [so should we worry? Yes because some consumer organizations don’t think Tesco provides value for money]. Almost ½ had participated with Nestle and about a third with Walker. (2) competitions and sports coaching, organized or sponsored by a business – 62% participation [so should we be pleased because activity is being encouraged, or worried because it’s being encouraged by a business – Raine goes for worry]. (3) sponsorship for sports or electrical equipment with a 38% participation rate. The worry here is that in half of the cases, the businesses ‘received some form of publicity or recognition’ [naturally assumed to be sinister and effective in corrupting kids]. (4) other sponsorship, such as school trips or events or prizes – 54% participation rate, most commonly for playground equipment. Lots of respondents did not reply to this question, however. Other data was received on matters such as overall sponsorship, using business sponsored teaching materials, free samples, including exercise books, some of which had advertising on or in them (in 21% of cases). There are other examples of involvement, such as visits to local restaurants [some of them fast food!] with 4% participation. Only 4% of schools had any policy about commercial involvement.
There was some relationship between involvement in activities and higher levels of eligibility for free school meals, although not statistically significant in all areas. There was a relationship between participation in health promotion and school involvement with commercial activities, and this was our overall a significant relation. However, participation in what might be seen as the particularly dodgy activities with food companies showed no connection with participation in health promotion. Other activities showed other forms of association [see page 222 if you’re gripped]. Schools working towards accreditation were more likely to be involved overall than those with accreditation [this is not really explained, but could be because entrepreneurial schools tend to do both, confirmed by Raine later on, commenting that the government encourages both]. Overall, there is a rather disappointing set of results here, showing some significant association, but not with the most obviously dubious ones. [So if Raine wishes to continue with the moral and political outrage, he has got to do some rather special pleading about the general nasty effects of any kind of commercial activity].
In the discussion, we get such a rant, beginning with a tirade about introducing market principles into schools by both conservative and labour governments. This encouraged schools to get company sponsorship and to become more entrepreneurial. This was encouraged for those schools wishing to acquire specialist status. There was no recognition of the dangers, such as that ‘business interests and values will become predominant in the education system’, quoting another couple of blokes (224). The summary of the findings here clearly is supposed to raise such worries. However, some people disagreed with things like voucher collection schemes, including the National Union of Teachers, and the Consumers Association who criticize the Tesco’s scheme has offering modest returns. The scary stuff about food companies is particularly condemned – such activities ‘will potentially undermine curriculum messages related to nutrition… Potentially undermine the healthy eating message… may also serve to actively promote pupils’ consumption of these products’ (225), with other sources quoted in support. American work in particular suggests that schools are particularly influential because they are trusted, that they should provide the learning environment ‘free from social, political or commercial manipulation’; that there is a danger of developing brand loyal consumers; a study in the USA found that educational material sponsored by commercial enterprises contained ‘incomplete or biased information and promoted a viewpoint that favoured consumption of the company’s product or service or a position that favoured the company itself or its economic agenda’ (226) and some UK teachers have reported some dissatisfaction. There may be implicit corporate messages. Teachers may not be able to spot them. Pupils might be particularly open to manipulation, whereas health promotion stresses empowerment and genuine choices. The poorer might be particularly vulnerable. Some businesses might actively wish to pursue their interests in getting involved with schools. Very few schools had policies. Further research is clearly needed.