Round about the time that small children start being told off by their parents for kicking up the leaves on their way to school, a traditional ritual is enacted in school staffrooms across the land. It varies slightly from place to place, but typically a teacher comes in clutching a piece of paper, calls for quiet and says: "Right. The City Arms can only take us December 15. The Marquesa Hotel is fully booked. The Fancy Ferret can manage any night at all, but does that mean it's no good? And one of the governors says he can get us a good deal at the British Legion..."
Yes, it's Staff Christmas Meal season again. The staffs of most schools do like to have a meal together sometime near the end of the autumn term. In many schools, though, the trouble is that not only do they leave the booking too late, but they have the greatest difficulty in settling on something that suits everyone.
As a result, they all too often end up in the crowded banqueting suite of a mid-range hotel, along with lots of other celebratory groups, wearing tatty paper hats and eating what one head describes as "crap food at inflated prices".
The practice at many of these places is transparently cynical. They put on a standard Christmas Fayre menu made up of mediocre ingredients, add a couple of crackers and a "speciality coffee", crowd the punters in elbow-to-elbow and charge Pounds 15 a person.
Warwickshire primary head Rod Steward grumbles: "The written description of the menu sounded great, but when you got there the best bit was the soup, and even that had come out of a can. I particularly remember the sprouts. You could have put them through a peashooter and bounced them off the wall."
One answer is to pay a lot more. But senior colleagues can easily forget that the cost of an evening out really matters to some teachers. The unifying, family feel of the celebration is hardly helped if some are priced out of it.
One head spoke for many when he said regretfully: "We have never had an outing where everyone has been there." So the decision to go for the standard meal package is usually a despairing compromise arising from the impossibility of pleasing everyone.
"It's a nightmare," says Steward. "Some want an activity, such as bowling. Others just want the tradi-tional turkey meal."
A partial answer is to find somewhere that will offer a wide choice of meals at different prices, but Rugby primary head Sandra Roberts recalls what happened when her staff did this: "We had to order in October, and the secretary went round and compiled a complicated list of choices. When we got there nobody could remember what they had ordered."
Staff at another Midlands primary decided last year to adopt a Birmingham tradition and go to an Indian balti restaurant. This was fine - and cheap - except that a few diehards still insisted on having a turkey dinner. To their consternation, the turkey eaters were banished to a separate table whence came disgruntled comments along the lines of "they're not very good at sage and onion stuffing, are they?" Who actually goes, and how they get on with each other, can be a cause of discomfort too. Steward speaks of "the shy husband or wife who doesn't understand any of what's going on and just doesn't want to be there".
Then there is the British pre-occupation with status. Some teachers, for example, like to have an exclusive function, free from the presence of support staff, on grounds usually expressed in such terms as: "We like to let our hair down away from the view of cleaners and dinner ladies" - an attitude which surely raises more questions than it answers.
In other staffrooms - perhaps most of them - it is taken for granted that "staff" means all employees, not forgetting the lollipop man.
Amid all of this festive angst, however, there are lots of schools where people do more or less the same thing every year and have long ago stopped worrying about it. The staff at Moseley primary in Coventry, for example, always do something cheap and cheerful at a local pub. "The food is never the main thing," explains Moseley teacher Gill Jelley. "Last year we had a karaoke. I wasn't too keen in advance, but it turned out really well. People displayed unexpected talents!" The cost of this excellent evening, including good pub food, was just Pounds 5 for each person.
Part of the attraction of going out together is just that - going out, being somewhere different. This is why teachers and other staff members usually groan when someone suggests having the "do" in school. There are compensations, though - it can be cheap; there will probably be good quality control over the food; and any unseemliness will take place away from public view. Sandra Roberts confesses: "We're an all-female staff and we do get a bit raucous. We never go back to the same place twice."
At Beauchamp College, a large comprehensive in Leicester, 150 people sit down in the hall, after the pupils have gone home on the last day of term, to an excellent traditional dinner prepared by the school meals staff.
The occasion lasts about an hour-and-a-half. "We do presentations if anyone is leaving, and we raise about Pounds 150 for charity from a raffle," says principal Maureen Cruickshank.
It is a sign of the times, though, that every year it becomes more difficult to clear the building of pupils so that the meal can start. Cruickshank says: "I couldn't get them away from the computers last time. They just wanted to stay."
The big prize in the field of in-school staff celebrations must go to Seamus Crowe, head of St Francis of Assisi RC Primary in Warwickshire. Every December for the past 15 years, he has taken over the school kitchen and personally cooked a Christmas evening meal for his staff, their partners and guests - up to 40 people. "Years ago," Mr Crowe explains, "we were going through all of that stuff about finding somewhere to go, and in the end I just said 'blow this, I'll cook it myself'."
Every year he discusses menus in advance with his diners and ends up offering at least three choices. "Perhaps a curry, or steaks, or chicken, or the traditional turkey, or a vegetarian dish. The only cost to everyone is for the ingredients."
He is usually assisted in the kitchen by two other keen cooks, husbands of teachers in the school, and stress in the kitchen is apparantly kept at bay with the aid of some wine. "That has been rumoured," agrees the cautious cook.
The symbolism of his action - the leader as servant - is quite deliberate, and the whole thing gives him great satisfaction. He describes it as "a joy" and explains: "The staff is a family. Getting them together and cooking for them is a way of uniting them, and of expressing my respect for them."