The high street recently issued a collective profit warning: sales of bath bombs, heart-shaped Post-it notes and scented candles are likely to slump in Scotland this month, after a parent organisation has called for an end to the custom of buying teachers a Christmas present. In related news, charity shops, tombolas and bring-and-buy sales also fear there will be a dip in stock this January.
The move by Connect, formerly known as the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, supported by teaching union the EIS, has been made with an unarguably worthy motive: to ease the spending burden for families at Christmas as well as avoiding any financial embarrassment the practice might cause. The majority of parents spend a tenner, with one in ten admitting to going above £25 on a present.
They are following on from Falkirk Council, who last Christmas hit the headlines for “banning” teachers from receiving gifts from pupils or parents. Any gifts that were accepted had to be properly recorded: perhaps the authority worried that a wine glass engraved with three measurements – new term, half term and end of term – could buy a pupil some favourable treatment in the year-end assessments?
This all seems a little bit draconian, if not overestimating your position – can you really tell someone what to spend their money on? I'm not sure any ban would achieve the aims Connect set out anyway. Parents who give the teacher a hamper from Harrods will simply find another method of displaying their wealth.
And at the receiving end, I don't imagine primary teachers – and it almost always is primary – are anxiously hoping that their 30 little Santas are going to bring them something lavish this year. Class teachers understand it is not really about the receiving but the giving, and will gracefully accept puppy calendars and “World’s Best Teacher” mugs as they see parents teaching children the important social skill of showing their appreciation of the work done for them by their teachers. Of course, it is always nice to have a visible symbol of this appreciation.
Gift-giving is a cultural tradition within our society stretching back at least as far the Anglo-Saxon era, when it was considered far more powerful to give than receive. Much like today, gift-giving was social glue to connect the community together; the only thing that has changed is that those who ignored the gift-giving rules were banished, whereas today people just talk about them behind their back.
It is a shameful fact that child poverty is a real and growing problem in what is still one of the richest countries in the world. However, I don't believe that the saving made from not giving a small token of appreciation would make much of a material difference to a family's income at Christmas – parents should be free to decide what they spend their money on.
Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland