I met the publicity officer. "Since when," I asked, "do schools need publicity?"

School sure has changed since I pulled up my knee-high navy socks for the last time 16 years ago. Stephen Twigg, the MP who ousted Michael Portillo so gloriously in 1997, gave a Q&A session at his old school in Southgate last week, and I went along to get a taste of the election atmosphere. In fact, what I was served up was a spicy portion of teen life and education policy for the 21st century.

Half a dozen sixth-formers had been picked to grill the young MP about the euro, education and crime. And each one looked like he or she had stepped out of an MTV show. Only their tabloid language and their obsession with Ronnie Biggs and "being British" reminded me that these were north London kids, not members of the Britney Spears entourage.

After "Twiggy's" radio quizzing, I had time to chat to four of the school's senior staff. They wanted me to know how furious they were about Alastair Campbell's "bog-standard comprehensive" jibe.

"How dare he?" scowled one head of year. "Have they any idea how different every school is now?" They tutted in that teacher-like way that says "If only I could knock some sense into that boy, he'd be much better off".

The lady who had shown me around introduced herself not as the head's secretary (as I had expected) but, rather surprisingly, as "Southgate School's publicity officer". Publicity officer? Did I hear her properly?

"Sorry?" I said, stumbling over my words. "Since when do schools need publicity?"

The idea seemed laughable. As I remember it, there are about four local schools per area, and each September they take as many pupils as they can until all the desks are taken. The end. A captive audience, you might say. The idea of schools advertising their wares to an audience forced to buy their product anyway makes as much sense to me as electricity and gas firms spending millions on TV advertising when customers are totally reliant on their power.

"You need to market a school," said the perky lady. "Each school has its own particular selling points. Such as beacon schools or specialised subjects."

When the recruitment season starts again, these special "selling points" are put into flashy brochures and sent to prospective parents. Gone are the days of the dodgy old bazaar, the tombola and the printed sheet of A4. Schools, like hospitals and the benefits system, are increasingly being forced into a commercially competitive "market". I stood there open-mouthed for a moment when she had finished and then, resisting the urge to put up my hand, said the same words I used to utter tearfully to my maths teacher, Mrs Chowhury: "I'm sorry, but I still don't understand."

She gently started again. There is a limited number of pupils, or customers, to choose from and, in order to get the right "mix" of pupils, the parents of the children they seek must be persuaded that the school is the best, newest and brightest in the area.

The fog was beginning to clear: "You want the middle-class kids here, that's what you want." Eureka. The lady looked nervous and angry at the same time.

"It's not about 'creaming off' the best pupils at all. It's about the mix." So where does the budget for all this PR come from? "You'd need to talk to our financial team and our management department to find that out," she said.

As she left, no doubt to think up ways of spinning the smoking in the toilets into a "positive reflection of our vibrant youth culture", she turned: "Schools are big business nowadays. There are only limited resources, you know. And if you do well in the inspections and in the league tables, then your funding goes up."

Somehow, it still sounded to me like saying that poorer, less able kids were a financial liability, and that getting middle-class parents interested meant more funding in the long run. Perhaps next year they'll put their strategy into a funky, magazine-style manifesto.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men