Corporate run obesity programmes in primary schools: Contrived philanthropy and the creeping privatisation of health education

Year: 2012

Author: Powell, Darren

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


A number of scholars have contested and critiqued neoliberal reforms in education, including the privatisation, corporatisation, commercialisation and marketisation of education. These analyses of neoliberalism in education focus on large-scale reform of policies and practices, such as charter schools, voucher schemes, public-private partnerships and the privatisation of schools and management of schools. However, there is also a subtle neoliberal reform shaping health education policies and practices in primary schools. Current concerns about the childhood obesity crisis have led to a proliferation of primary school-based obesity programmes funded, devised and/or implemented by for-profit corporations. Interestingly, it is not just the 'usual suspects' (e.g. McDonald's, Coca-Cola) who now claim to be part of the solution to fighting childhood obesity in schools. Corporations from banking, media, insurance, sportswear, fitness, video gaming, gambling and alcohol industries also help 'educate' children across the globe about obesity, healthy lifestyles and healthy products.
The corporate solutions to obesity include an eclectic mix of resources, fundraising schemes, sponsorships, 'edutainment' events and education programmes gifted to schools. These corporate obesity programmes are described (and marketed) by corporations and governments in terms of philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and working in partnership with schools and/or government. However, a number of scholars argue that the insertion of corporations into education is a contrived philanthropy. It is viewed as a business strategy to avoid stricter regulatory controls, divert attention from less agreeable practices, to increase brand value and secure brand trust and loyalty. This 'corporate assault' on education is described by some authors as maintaining an ideology of consumption, creating a 'corporate-friendly' world-view, establishing a 'halo effect' and philanthropic image, mis-educating students, and ultimately, increasing the bottom line for the corporation.
These anti-obesity programmes and partnerships are a manifestation of neoliberal reforms of governance, where the role of state in providing health education is shifting to the private sector. These reforms blur the boundaries between business and philanthropy, public and private sector interests, education and advertising, children as citizens and children as consumers. Whilst corporations and governments promote their partnerships with primary schools as 'win-win-win', the corporate-influenced policies and practices that claim to fight childhood obesity represent a 'creeping privatisation' of health education - a process that may have a damaging effect on children's health and education.