Send it back

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
It might look like an apple, but to some LEAs it's an inappropriate present - and they've drawn up guidelines to explain the difference. Martin Whittaker reports

Is that box of chocolates or bunch of flowers that appear on your desk at the end of the year a token of thanks from grateful pupils? Is it a measure of how much they value your teaching? Or are they out to bribe you?

With a thoroughness that would shame the committee on standards in public life (formerly the Nolan committee), a Welsh education authority has put the old tradition of "an apple for teacher" to the test.

Neath Port Talbot county borough council recently introduced a code of conduct requiring all school staff to declare in writing any gifts of value. It says gifts of a token value such as chocolates, pens or diaries are acceptable, but where they become of "more significant value", they should be declared. "Staff must ensure that they and members of their family are never in a position where their receipt of such gifts could be interpreted as a bribe or inducement," says the code.

The independent committee was set up in the wake of the row over cash for questions in Parliament and controversy surrounding gifts received by the royal family from foreign governments. But surely children's gifts to teachers aren't in the same league? Isn't it unfair to subject school staff to the same scrutiny as politicians and heads of state?

Stuart Evans, Neath Port Talbot's head of forward planning and resource management for schools, insists the code was brought in for the teachers'

own benefit. "The advice is to help protect staff and, as such, offers guidance on what gifts can be accepted," he says. "The authority's intention is that the guidance will enable staff to make the appropriate decision. If any instances do arise, they will be considered on their individual circumstances. However, the policy is clearly intended to help protect staff from such events happening at all."

Anthony Hughes, head of Pontrhydyfen primary school in Port Talbot, and a member of the executive of the Welsh National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Woman Teachers, believes the new code of conduct is one more piece of bureaucracy that teachers don't need. He says it poses difficulty for teachers in defining what is a gift of "significant value".

"My concern is that staff, at the end of the day, are going to be so worried about what should be termed gifts of significant value that they will refuse gifts, or declare everything just to cover themselves," says Mr Hughes.

Neath Port Talbot is not the only authority to regulate pupils' offerings.

Just over a year ago, Leicestershire LEA hit the headlines after decreeing that teachers should not accept a Christmas tipple from pupils or parents.

Like Neath Port Talbot, Leicestershire's code of conduct states that council employees, including teachers, can accept gifts of a "token value", such as calendars, diaries or chocolates. "But more expensive items such as bottles of wine, spirits and perfume should not be accepted," says a council spokesman.

John Gawthorpe, chair of the National Primary Headteachers' Association and head of Mayhill junior school in Hook, Hampshire, believes the decision whether to accept a gift should be left to the teacher. "There was probably a grain of common sense in this when the idea hatched," he says. "But I think the reaction vastly outweighs the problem, such as it may be. We must be living in a suspicious and unforgiving age when a parent can't buy a pound;5 bottle of wine for a teacher without giving the LEA the trouble of recording it and the teacher some air of suspicion that this is a bribe or inducement."

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says parents from some cultures where gift giving is a tradition could be offended. He says gifts to teachers are important. "In our society, in the workplace we rarely reward and praise people. We punish them and find fault when they do something wrong. When they do something right we don't say 'thank you, here's a little gift to reinforce that'. " A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers says: "Most presents to teachers are from primary age children and they are small, like a box of chocolates. It's a thank you, or a sorry, from the child, and it's much appreciated by the teacher. Teachers take a lot of brickbats, and rarely get kudos. These codes are a heavy-handed hammer to crack a nut that doesn't exist."

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