In my children's playground the last day of term brings the now familiar sight of each teacher surrounded by a throng of children eagerly thrusting presents upon her. The cache of wine, chocolates and bath smellies should keep them sweetly tempered and scented for months. But is this present giving just another example of Americanised competitive parenting?
Like most, I've swung between trying to find the perfect personalised present (and, with hindsight, failing embarrassingly) or grabbing the last bunch of flowers in the local flower shop.
'At my children's previous London school, it was only the smarmy mummies who gave presents; in such a mixed catchment area most parents couldn't afford to and the prevailing attitude was that you didn't need to,' explains Abigail Winthorpe, who's since moved to East Sussex. 'But here there's a competition to outdo each other. I stick to bottles of wine, although I did give The Dangerous Book of Boys to a teacher who didn't seem to understand boys. I do feel uncomfortable with the idea of currying favour with presents.'
Teacher Jane Flicker says: 'I got 12 boxes of chocolates last Christmas. By the 12th day of gorging, I felt so sick I wondered if I'd messed up my insulin levels for life.'
For diabetic or teetotal teachers the chocolate-drink overload really is a case of thanks-but-no-thanks. And while the rest of us can recycle unwanted presents to the school fete, that's a definite no-no for teachers whose homes I imagine piled high with cutesy ornaments, family size biscuit tins and scented candles. Then again perhaps this present giving is simply parental revenge for all the two feet tall cardboard Tudor houses, cereal box vehicles and robots proudly brought home at the end of every term.
So what's it like being the recipient of so many pupil gifts? Primary school teacher Pat James says: 'It's lovely people think of you and it can be very touching. But it can also be tricky, especially when someone has spent a lot of money on something that really isn't your taste. I was once given a really mumsyish but obviously expensive M & S cardigan. My first reaction was horror at the thought I'd have to wear it. Everyone in the staff room used to fall about every time I came in wearing it.'
Clothes and ornaments are apparently high on teachers' wish-not lists. However wonderful your child may think a teacher is and however warm and friendly she is to you, the fact is you know nothing about her personal life, her tastes nor what size she is.
Mum Sarah James says: 'I don't think there's anything wrong with showing your appreciation if your child had a real rapport with a teacher, but I really object to this culture of obligation from parents and expectation from teachers. I wouldn't tip if I had terrible service in a restaurant, and I don't see why I should give a present to a teacher who I think has shown minimal interest in my son.'
In some schools parents organise a whip-round to buy a single and more substantial present for the teacher, sometimes accumulating over £300 towards vouchers and even designer handbags. 'The school PTA thought it would be a sensible idea for parents in each class to club together, but it turned into a minefield,' admits Patricia Carswell, who was given the unenviable task of organising the present.
'First there was the issue of how much to ask for – a fiver, over or under? Then there were all sorts of ideas as to what the present should be with different people throwing strops. Finally, as she was a keen gardener we decided on some Royal Horticultural Society vouchers, but then all hell broke loose when I didn't organise a grand presentation. The teacher would have been mortified to have to give a speech, but I came in for a lot of flak. Never again.'
I used to think you could never go wrong with a homemade card, even if getting three children with chronic end-of-termitis to do more than scrawl their names swiftly cancels all feelings of Christmas cheer.
But my friend Jo has a warning: 'Check what they've written. I was accosted in the playground by his teacher who showed me my son's card. He had written. 'I think you need a holiday because you are quite cross.' Luckily, she thought it was funny – or put on a good show.'
Best presents for teachers
Hand-made cards (but check the messages aren't unwittingly offensive)
Homemade biscuits or cake
Pot plants – for extra points your child could even decorate the terracotta pot
Mug decorated by your child before baking.
And the worst
Soap (apparently seriously angst-making when you're the recipient of 10 bars of soap), ditto toothpaste, any sort of present to make the teacher query their personal hygiene
Anything adorned with 'world's best teacher' or saccharine messages about little seeds being nurtured into trees
More on Parentdish:
What teachers really want to say to parents