Yesterday was World book Day, when children at Alma, in common with many in other primary schools, dressed up as their favourite characters or books. Less common perhaps was the discussion we had with children in Years 1 and 2 about book scams.
A couple of months ago children received an invitation to take part in a poetry competition, which turned out to be more a marketing ploy than genuine activity. The idea behind these schemes is that children are invited to submit an entry: a short story, poem or even an illustration, for something that is referred to as ‘a competition’ and usually run by an organisation with a misleading title, such as the ‘National Literacy Endowment’ or ‘Young Writers’. We, along with all schools in the country, get sent these kind of invitations on a regular basis and we are generally savvier at avoiding them. In the small print for these schemes there are frequently details explaining the company or organisation pick the ‘winners’, (which are normally about 80% of the entries), and these ‘lucky entries’ will be published in a book which parents can buy, for anything from £12 to £20.
Whilst there is technically nothing illegal with this kind of thing, there are many reasons why these so-called competitions are wrong: when adults choose to self-publish poetry, memoires or even fan-fiction, they do so knowing that they have not been selected by an editor or publisher, so that in the event the book only sells to family and friends, they would have limited expectations of national recognition or prize winning acclaim! However, when children are convinced to submit something under false pretences, parents then feel guilt-driven into spending a reasonable amount of money on the books. It may well be a cynical marketing opportunity but it is also, to my mind, absolutely wrong.
Since on this occasion we had inadvertently sent this out, as educators we realised we faced a choice. We could shrug our shoulders and apologise for our administrative error, or we could use the learning opportunity that this presented. Since we believe that children can ultimately become more resilient if we are honest with them, even when that honesty may be painful, we choose the latter. We spoke to the children about how these people had tried to trick them and their parents. Then we asked the children what we should do.
Our children are growing up in a world where increasingly there are organisations or individuals who are trying to convince us to give them money for products or services. As recent advertising campaigns have highlighted, fraudsters and scammers are actively exploiting our vulnerabilities, particularly in the digital realm. One of the important aspects of our educational approach is teaching children to challenge and question the validity of the things the encounter in the world. So whilst this was sent to us as a cynical scam, it gave our children a very real world opportunity to see how convincing such fraudsters can be.
In our discussion the children suggested that it was unfair of their parents to pay money for these books (something we agreed with) and that we should, instead, create our own book of our children’s best writing – something we will look to do in the summer term. We will also get a copy of the ‘competition’ book for our school library: as well as a collection of poems by children at Alma and other schools, it will also serve as a reminder for us all to have a little healthy cynicism in a world where there are all too often tricksters looking to exploit our good will.