Helping others or just taking it easy?

12th December 1997 at 00:00
This Christmas, like many schools, our secondary will present gifts of food hampers to elderly people in the community. The hampers - colourfully decorated boxes packed with a variety of festive goodies - are delivered by pupils just before we break up for the holiday. It's a tradition that goes back some years, and is much appreciated; in the new year, the school receives many letters of thanks, and in assemblies the pupils are praised for their efforts.

Fine. But what have our pupils done to deserve such praise? Is it really deserved or, worse, are we giving our pupils the wrong message about helping others?

A handful of pupils decorate and deliver the parcels (that's a privilege, with time off lessons), and all pupils ask their parents to contribute an item or two - a Christmas pudding, some fruit, coffee or chocolate, and so on. Parents always respond generously. But that's exactly my point: it's the pupils who are supposed to be making the effort and the sacrifice.

It is surely important that, when children are exhorted to help others less fortunate than themselves, they should make - and feel they are making - a personal sacrifice, however small. That experience of personal sacrifice makes the whole enterprise morally significant. It cannot be right that they are thanked for doing little or nothing.

It isn't only at Christmas that our pupils - and pupils across the country - are shown the easy road to sainthood. For example, we organise several "mufti" days during the year. For the privilege of not wearing uniform on that day, pupils (that is, parents again) make a donation of about 50p to a charity or good cause. A lot of money is raised, which again is fine, but unless we are saying that that is the only thing that matters, pupils are being thanked for paying for a privilege.

Last Christmas I did things differently. I discussed the issue with my Year 9 tutor group and we agreed that they would contribute part of their own spending money every day in the three-week run-up to Christmas. A chart on the board helped to stimulate and sustain interest.

More than enough money was raised to fill two hampers, and some pupils had the responsibility of going into the town to do the shopping. When letters of appreciation arrived at the school after Christmas, I felt that this time the pupils could justifiably feel proud of themselves.

Tom Wegg teaches in Cornwall

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