The issue - Teacher gifts

23rd April 2010 at 01:00
Presents from pupils are becoming increasingly extravagant, but could it be unwise to accept them - or should the practice even be banned?

Many teachers would think themselves lucky to get a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine as a thank-you gift from their pupils at Christmas or the end of the school year, but a survey for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) unearthed a trend for increasingly lavish gifts.

A Tiffany bracelet, Mulberry bag, tickets to the opera and a pound;1,000 gift voucher were among some of the gifts recorded.

Some teachers complained that the whole process had become an exercise in one-upmanship, but are there any potential pitfalls in accepting expensive presents from your charges?

Few schools have a policy on what is acceptable, but there are clearly some risks. Could the gift be seen as a bribe so you give one of your charges extra attention? It's not always the size of the gift that matters, it's how it compares with the others. In the land of Ferrero Rocher, the Hotel Chocolat box is king.

Could you be accused of favouritism towards the pupil whose gift outshone the others? It doesn't have to be a Cartier watch to make you feel uncomfortable delivering bad news at parents' evening.

Teacher Francis Gilbert, author of I'm a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here, cited an embarrassing situation after receiving an ornamental fish from the parent of one struggling pupil. "Accepting the gift made it extremely awkward when it came to chucking the boy off the course," Mr Gilbert wrote in The Guardian.

Some teachers take an absolutist approach. "In most jobs in the public sector you are not allowed to accept gifts, so why are teachers exempt?" asks one teacher on an internet message board.

But others are more laissez-faire. "What's the big deal? I have three children at private school and would think nothing of spending a couple of hundred pounds on a present to thank the teachers for all the hard work they put into educating my children," says one parent.

The best approach is to use your discretion. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says that teachers should be trusted to differentiate between what is acceptable and what is excessive without schools laying down rules.

Situations where there is doubt over what to do will be a rarity, he says, with most gifts falling into one of three categories: "Eat it, drink it, or take it to the Oxfam shop."

Perhaps the embarrassment factor is a good general guide: if you would feel embarrassed telling someone about the gift, then it is probably too much. If you are unsure, tell the head. If you think it is too much, then a polite refusal is the best option.

Jenny Inglis, a member of the executive of teaching union ATL, who addressed this issue at the union's annual conference last month, says it is more a matter of raising awareness than of setting out guidelines. Where teachers are unsure, they should always raise the issue of a school policy.

"We want people to think about this and make wise decisions," she says. "Any policy would depend on the school."

The advantage of a school policy is that it takes the responsibility for negotiating potentially treacherous waters away from the teacher. It would also give schools with competitive parents the opportunity to create a spending cap. In Massachusetts, for example, American teachers are not allowed to accept gifts worth more than $50 (pound;32).

Parents who want to give more are invited to buy a resource in the teacher's name. Perhaps this could be one way of making sure the school benefits with no strings attached.

What to do

  • Find out if your school has a policy - look into getting one if not.
  • Ask your headteacher if you are unsure about whether to accept a gift.
  • If you feel uncomfortable accepting a gift, then politely decline.

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