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Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Tuesday, 30 March 2010 12:23 UK

Why has buying presents for teachers got so competitive?


By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

As schools break up for Easter many teachers will be getting gifts from their students. But why has it got so competitive - and expensive - and can giving a teacher a present ever be just a simple thank you?

A few generations ago a Granny Smith would have done the job. Now a Tiffany bracelet, Rolex watch and Mulberry handbag are among the thank-you gifts teachers have received from pupils.

Present giving is becoming increasingly competitive and commercialised, warned the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) at its annual conference this week. It's the case across the board - both in state and private schools.

Many parents agree. They complain of gifts being "paraded" around the school playground and say it's now "simply expected" among parents that you give a present at the end of term or Christmas.

There are also concerns that some parents are trying to gain favour with teachers, while children from poorer backgrounds are getting teased by classmates about the value of their gifts - if they can afford one at all.

Home-made gifts
Source: ATL

Gift giving is nothing new, but in the past a hand-made card would usually suffice. While no one is suggesting Rolex watches and free holidays - one teacher reported being offered the use of a villa in Spain - are the norm, most teachers have received toiletries, wine and chocolates. And the gifts are getting increasingly expensive, says ATL.

But why are things getting increasingly competitive? It all comes back to the modern relationship between the child and parent, says Frank Furedi, sociology professor at Kent University and author of Paranoid Parenting.

"Children are now viewed as an extension of their parents," he says. "If the child is doing well then its parents are successful, if the child is failing then so are they."

This "parental determinism" - that their behaviour alone determines a child's future - has put huge pressure on families, he argues. It filters into every part of life - especially schools.


"Parents are told to play the role of their child's advocate, to demand everything they want from schools," he says. "They are also told to read every night with their child, help them do their homework. They're not being good parents if they don't.

"Giving presents to teachers is just the other side of the same coin. Pressure is on the parents and they put it on the teacher, just in a different way."

The current political climate, which puts an ever greater onus on parental involvement in education, is to blame, he believes. While the enormous influence parents have over their children is in no doubt, they are often used as scapegoats.

A child drawing
Hand-made gifts are on the wane

Some parents say giving a gift is harmless, most of them are inexpensive and their children want to give their teacher something. And some teachers say they enjoy receiving them.

"Most presents are small, they are a little token of thanks and it's a really nice thing for a pupil to do," says Coinneach Morrison from Inverness, a former teacher who still in education.

"People give the milkman a little something at Christmas, they don't do it because they think they will get their milk any quicker - it's simply to say thank you. As long as a teacher doesn't expect it and it doesn't influence anything, then it's fine.

"It comes down to freedom of choice, if a parent wants to do it then it's their decision. People moan about Britain becoming a nanny state, any sort of ban would just be a step closer to that."

But when it comes to the relationship between a teacher and a pupil, can a present ever be just an expression of gratitude? Possibly not, say some.

Overstepping boundaries

"I'm uncomfortable with students giving their teachers any kind of present that isn't a home-made card or picture, it's a very loaded situation," says Karen Pine, a psychologist from the University of Hertfordshire.

She says there are three "unspoken rules" of gift giving - appropriateness, empathy and effort.

For a gift to be given and received in the right way it has to be appropriate for the person you're giving it to, have some sort of shared connection or meaning with them and show that the person giving it has put some thought and effort into it.

When it comes to a gift for a teacher, we spoil it by making it about buying something
Dr Penelope Leach
Childcare expert

"Gift giving is a sensitive thing - personally, socially and emotionally," she says. "It's easy to overstep boundaries. In this situation giving a teacher any type of bought gift could be argued to be overstepping the boundary of what is appropriate."

She adds that gifts represent either a physically or emotionally exchange and asks what parents really hope to get out of it.

Many teachers say they feel uncomfortable with the situation and do not encourage it. Some even think pupils should be banned from giving gifts altogether, as it encourages unhealthy competition. Most schools and colleges do not have a policy on the receiving of gifts, says ATL.

"People don't appreciate the pressure it puts on children," says Nida Salahat, who teaches at a state primary school in Richmond Upon Thames. "I've had pupils get really upset because their parents haven't been able to afford even the smallest gift.

Real virtue

"Personally, I believe teachers should not be allowed to accept gifts, even if they aren't expensive. Teaching is my job and a simple thank you at parents' evening is the best kind of appreciation."

With shops now stocking specialised cards and gifts for teachers, the ATL's concerns about the practice becoming commercialised are plain to see.

And for some money is at the very heart of the matter - the move away from hand-made gifts to shop-bought presents.

"When it comes to a gift for a teacher, we spoil it by making it about buying something," says renowned childcare expert Dr Penelope Leach. "That makes it about the parent and about money, not about the child.

"If the gift has any real virtue it has to be personal and hand-made. We should encourage children to draw a picture or write words that they think their teacher will like, to actually think about the person they are giving it to. Buying something doesn't teach them anything of value."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I do not believe in 'gift giving' for teachers, this sends the wrong message. I believe that a word or note of appreciation for a job well done, if earned, is sufficient. I do not give gifts to my Doctor, Dentist or Lawyer, why teachers? They are all paid for the job they do just like the rest of us.
Maggie Watts, Ontario Canada

I work with special needs students in a secondary school and my last have just left after being with me for 5 years one bought me a watch (well parents did) the other bought me a little teddy. Which meant more? The fact that the both achieved and went on to college happy confident young people - that's the one. I don't think i'm the only only one who feels like this, most school staff do. A token gift or card is always a lovely surprise but not why we do the job.
Sue, northampton

I think the whole gift giving idea has gone round the bend. I remember being asked by other parents to give £5 towards the end of year present for the teacher. That equates to £150 in a class of 30, in any other job gifts have to be declared for tax purposes. If the child is happy with the teacher and want to make them a picture as thank you fair enough as the do have an impact on the childs life, but anything above is not child appreciation and at the end of the day teachers are just doing a job like the rest of us
Anon, Wirral

My mother would never supply my sister or I with any presents for teachers. I don't recall it being a common thing to do in the late 80s to mid 90s either. We were certainly never encouraged to. I think I did a few thank you letters at the end of 6th Form. My husband is a teacher at a public school and he mostly receives bottles of wine from pupils. Very nice at Xmas, but he appreciates the notes in the cards much more as a reflection on his teaching.
Lou-Lou, Lancashire

My daughters class do a group collection at Christmas for their teacher (they have done this each year since starting school) - you can contribute whatever you feel, if you don't then that's ok also. There is no pressure to compete with the other parents on size/cost of gift either. One of the mums takes responsibility for collecting the money and purchasing the gift. This way her teacher receives just one present (usually John Lewis vouchers or similar) and the children all sign a card. They don't contribute at any other time of the year e.g. Easter/end of school year. It seems to work, but you need to ensure you have a group of parents who are considerate that not everyone wants to get involved and therefore should not be judged.
Mary Lynch, London

Given that teachers are the first markers of coursework, which can be as much as 60% of a students grade, how can it be deemed appropriate for them to receive a "gift". Whilst I am confident that the fast majority of teachers have a strong code of ethics, it would be difficult for any individual to completely forget an expense gift at marking time!
Greg Smith, Oxford

I'm now at university - not long since I was at school. I only ever got small presents for teachers who'd been especially supportive for whatever reason. When I left secondary school, I wrote thank you letters instead, and I gather they were appreciated much more.
Joseph Ball, London, UK

My mother is a primary school teacher and it really makes her year to receive presents from the children. For her it is a token of appreciation for all the work she puts in for the children during and out of school hours. She appreciates equally the home-made gifts and drawings and the traditional flowers/chocolate gifts. Although mugs and fridge magnets saying "world's best teacher" are slightly cringe-worthy.
Anon, Scotland

My children decorate sturdy plain cotton shopping bags with fabric paints & pens as their end-of-year gifts to teachers. Highly personalised and very useful to carry home the marking.
Lisa, Cambs

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