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Presents for teachers

Written by Guest on Sunday, 16 December 2018

The following is a guest post by Sir Edward Clay KCMG – a retired British diplomat, formerly a High Commissioner and ambassador. During his time as British High Commissioner in Kenya, Sir Edward earned a reputation for his willingness to speak out against corruption at high levels of the Kenyan government

The Times reported on 4 December that the school once attended by Samantha Cameron had issued guidelines to cap the value of presents staff could accept from parents. This reminded us all that such practices are common and also revealed what the authorities and parents at fee-paying schools think is the proper value of a Christmas tip to teachers from their pupils. It is well beyond most kids’ pocket money.

I was reminded the other night, after listening to Bill Browder deliver the annual Transparency International UK lecture, that quite an important point may be at stake in this apparently harmless practice of pupils giving presents to teachers. Someone in the audience asked what could be done to propagate anti-corruption norms in society.  No-one had any clear ideas besides severe and ever more elaborate laws bearing down on corruption, money-laundering and soon. Bill Browder made the useful point that there were, in the UK, lots of well-drafted laws, but they seemed to lack rigorous enforcement. Something is clearly missing in Britain’s moral hinterland that we avoid standing up for our values in respect of corruption.

Is it naïve to think that instilling attitudes that are hostile to bribery and corruption might begin at primary school level? And that the inculcation of such attitudes should go beyond the classroom?

Children are impressionable and acute observers. They have a deep instinct for fairness from an early age. It is hard to persuade children that their peers whose parents give teachers handsome gifts do not enjoy teachers’ favour. And that if those favoured children do better, it’s because of the gift. Once that suspicion or presumption sticks, it is hard to get rid of it. Children may and do grow to adulthood thinking that the backhander is part of the currency of a successful life.

The first dilemma for head teachers is that the well-heeled parents of kids at fee-paying schools can afford quite generous gifts. Some parents at fee-paying schools will originate in cultures where backhanders are commonplace and may not understand discouragement from the practice.

The other thing is the role that this petty corruption plays in generating more serious forms of corruption, of persons and of institutions. There are plenty of institutions corroded by corruption. Young people see examples daily. They read about foreign corrupt individuals abusing the facilities offered by the United Kingdom to launder money acquired elsewhere. But the most telling examples they see as young children are those set by parents and teachers, because they see most of them every day, and are conditioned to respect their authority.

Finally, elite schools and universities offer fertile pastures for the establishment of networks of friendship and privilege. You cannot expect to ban that kind of social network, but it would be possible to make clear that its purpose is friendship and association but not for doing favours.

We are today anxious about the increasing gap between the rich and the rest, and the ostentatious use and abuse of wealth. The Times (again) reported a week after the article about presents for teachers that it would take until 2070 for poor children to catch up with their rich peers. Most such poor children will assume that their hard luck reflects the ability of richer parents to pay for  backhanders to buy a better education for their children.

Unless the education authorities bear down on present-giving, children will feel, as parents do, that they must conform to this bad practice. Our society might in due course see other professionals – doctors, civil servants, local government officials, magistrates and so on – expecting backhanders.

Perhaps those who loftily dismiss this prospect as exaggeration might contemplate why present-giving is so prevalent in poor countries. Among the many reasons are the abysmally low pay of  people we otherwise respect, like teachers, nurses, police officers and so forth: sometimes they do not get paid at all because someone senior has ‘eaten’ their wages. So they must live off those over whom they have authority in order. to survive at all.

The true source of much corruption by ordinary guys doing ordinary jobs is the example of graft set by their bosses. They occupy well-paid jobs and their personal corruption involves eye-watering sums. Among the badges I most treasure is one given me by an NGO in Kenya bearing the legend: “Why hire a lawyer when you can buy a judge?” There is no famine in Kenya which is not accompanied by a scandal about theft of strategic food stores for private profiteering. There is no public examination not marked by some corrupt leakage of papers. There is a shallow well of trust, or mistrust, pervading public life.

Changing the norms of people’s ordinary behaviour begins at school, with adults setting an example of integrity and fairness in their everyday dealings. Teachers have a key role in being seen to behave in an even -handed way towards their pupils and each other. So do parents.


Read 218 times Last modified on Thursday, 20 December 2018 12:43


The TI-UK blog features thought and opinion from guest writers as well as TI staff. Any opinions expressed by external contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International UK.

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