Newcastle East Public School under fire for involvement in Telstra competition

At what cost: Parent Meaghan McGregor said the school had a duty of care to its students. "My biggest concern is this competition has been delivered to children to be used as a marketing tool to adults." Picture: Jonathan Carroll
At what cost: Parent Meaghan McGregor said the school had a duty of care to its students. "My biggest concern is this competition has been delivered to children to be used as a marketing tool to adults." Picture: Jonathan Carroll

NEWCASTLE East parents are questioning the true cost of the school’s involvement in a Telstra competition, which they say is a marketing exercise offering “unfettered access” to their community for limited return and the principal has defended as filling a shortfall in funding.

Telstra has invited customers to come into its Jesmond or Marketown stores and vote for either Newcastle East, Tighes Hill or Heaton public schools in its Digital Futures Program.

The winning school receives a Digital Maker Party in a Box kit valued at $4000 with digital learning tools; 50 digital licenses and $4000 towards purchasing new technology.

The two runners up get 50 licenses and $1000 for new technology.

Parent Meaghan McGregor said she was “disgusted” to see the competition advertised in the school’s newsletter, on a banner on the school fence and on flyers sent home with students.

“It felt like emotional blackmail,” Ms McGregor said.

“It’s been very specific and very directive and it’s not what we expect from our educational institutions, which are representing parental guidance when our children are in their care.

“We need to stop and review this. It’s a branding exercise.

“Why is this corporation allowed such unfettered access to our school?

“It breaks down barriers for their involvement in the future and sets a precedent.

“We can’t roll over for $4000. If we do this for such a small amount, what we going to do for more in the future?”

A Department of Education spokesperson said the decision to vote was a private one for individual parents.

“Parents voting in the competition does not imply any endorsement by the school of Telstra or Stockland, does not give either company any access to school communities, nor requires the schools to be involved in any promoting, branding or marketing of the companies.

“The schools’ department budgets for IT equipment cover all their routine teaching and learning needs: any additional equipment would simply be a bonus.”

The department’s guidelines for commercial arrangements and school based activities recommend the principal assess before deciding to participate in promotional activities “what benefits will flow to the school and whether they represent a fair exchange for what the school is providing to the company”.

“But this is not at all a fair exchange,” Ms McGregor said.

“It’s just marketing on behalf of a corporation for free.”

Principal Mick McCann told Ms McGregor the school was “offered” participation in the competition through a phone call in early term two, but Ms McGregor believes it was “targeted”.

“This is more than a competition, it’s an abuse being handed down,” she said.

“They’re exploiting their knowledge base in marketing against a school desperately looking to fill a funding gap.”

Mr McCann wrote to Ms McGregor in an email seen by the Newcastle Herald that the school’s Family Occupation and Education Index score showed it had low levels of socio-economic disadvantage and meant “we do not receive additional money to help supplement these types of initiatives”.

“Over the past 18 months we have regularly asked parents for school fees and if they are in a position to make a donation into our building fund,” he wrote.

“These have had limited success.”

Ms McGregor said corporations should not “plug the gap of funding”.

“This is a public school and everyone should not be expected to jump for a little bit of money,” she said.

“We live in a society and pay taxes so everyone can have access to free education.

“If we need more funding for the school we need to put pressure back on the government.”

Mr McCann said he had consulted the other members of the school executive and staff about the competition, but not the school council –  which has deferred discussion about the matter to its next meeting –  or the parents and citizens association.

Ms McGregor said parents were not allowed to use the newsletter to publicise fundraising efforts to help a school family in need and Hunter Street green grocer Local Crop’s offer to donate surplus fruit for the school canteen was not accepted.

The department spokesperson said the school’s newsletter “does not promote fundraising for children not enrolled, nor does it endorse businesses”.

Voting closes on August 19.

Telstra said at the end of last week, Heaton had 232 votes, Newcastle East had 88 and Tighes Hill had 78.