Few parents would complain about their teenage children opting to spend a large chunk of their school holidays at a university summer school. After all, it’s here that they get a chance to sample academic life, studying a wide range of subjects taught by specialists in a new and exciting environment, and surrounded by other young people with a similar enthusiasm for the pursuit of knowledge. It beats happy slapping, at least.
But when the sponsors of such summer schools include one of the Israeli army’s favourite suppliers, the warm glow of approval can begin to shift to unease. Caterpillar, well known for supplying the Israeli military with bulldozers to flatten Palestinian homes and build the illegal apartheid wall, is part of the gang of corporate sponsors with their fingers in the education pie. In this case, it’s the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY), a club of over 100,000 students aged 11-19 who are considered by their teachers to be of high ability.
Being labelled a ‘G&T’ student (which, incidentally, doesn’t require outstanding genius – just a decision by a teacher that a student is in the ‘top 5 per cent of ability range’, whatever that is) allows students to team up with others at neighbouring schools and universities and take part in workshops on filmmaking, quantum mechanics, archaeology – or ethics.
In fact, ethical debates are one of the most popular activities, with the list of topics on the students’ discussion forum including smoking in public, nuclear power and US presidential elections. So far, there are no threads entitled ‘Should international law be ignored?’ or ‘Encouraging the most aggressive army in the world – good or bad?’ but one can only hope that this is because the bright young things are unaware of where their funding comes from.
Tim Morris, a parent of two children who are members of NAGTY, was alarmed to discover that the programme’s sponsors include Caterpillar. ‘I have been very impressed by the fact that NAGTY not only caters to the curiosity of young people but also encourages reflection on ethical and moral issues,’ he says. ‘So I am very disappointed to see that NAGTY seems to wish to sweep this issue under the carpet.’
The best response NAGTY has been able to come up with so far certainly wouldn’t score any points in a debating contest. ‘All our work is done in consultation with the UK government, who would advise us if they felt that any of our relationships were inappropriate,’ says spokesperson Alison Rowan. ‘As far as I am aware, they approve of Caterpillar’s support for NAGTY.’
Anyway, it doesn’t really matter where the money comes from, does it? It’s not as if they have any influence, do they? Well, none apart from the fact that Richard Elsden, director of government affairs for Caterpillar UK, sits on NAGTY’s board (known in NAGTY literature as the ‘Friendship Group’). And no, Caterpillar is not the only corporate sponsor of the programme: Goldman Sachs and National Grid Transco do it too. While the bulk of the funding comes directly from the DfES, the slice that comes from the business world is set to expand. ‘We are delighted and grateful that the Caterpillar Foundation is increasing its support significantly in 2005-2006,’ says NAGTY’s annual report.
Bulldozers and human rights abuses aside, what this highlights is the nature of the relationship between the corporate world and education. Whether it’s through city academies or the sponsorship of academic elites, the business world is claiming an ever greater stake in the shaping of young hearts and minds, and you don’t have to be ‘gifted and talented’ to work out why. And it’s interesting that corporations like Caterpillar are much less keen to fund initiatives for students who aren’t at the top of the ability range.
There are countless examples of businesses pouring cash into education. There’s Business Action on Education, for example, a consortium aiming to ‘raise levels of achievement of young people’ by focusing on three main areas – ‘employability, enterprise and leadership’. (Caterpillar’s Richard Elsden is on the board of this one, too.) Or there’s the Goldman Sachs Gifted Entrepreneurs programme, part of NAGTY. And that’s to name just two.
But who will provide the political balance? Cashstrapped NGOs and pressure groups? How can organisations on the left buy a similar stake in young people’s awareness if education is to be sold in this way? The so-called ‘leaders of tomorrow’ cultivated by programmes like NAGTY will all be business leaders rather than any other kind. Unless, of course, the teachers in next year’s summer school fancy putting Caterpillar’s activities on the ethics syllabus.