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It's a topsy-turvy world

What has happened to our children? On a recent school trip, we were carrying out the usual late-night surveillance of the hostel dormitories, ensuring that everyone was safely in bed. We can come across some pretty startling sights at such times, but what we discovered in one room that night still haunts me.

Maybe that bizarre and shocking scene can be partly blamed on the nature of the school trip itself. Visits to the Netherlands are always unsettling, what with the rich mix of dams, dykes, windmills, tulips, cheese and clogs, all served up in so self-consciously stereotypical a fashion.

That day's excursion - to a dam - was a case in point. First, there was the needlessly fearsome guide. On arrival, she ordered us into a small room to watch grainy footage of flood-defence construction (featuring a then-royal Sarah Ferguson at the opening ceremony), with a score seemingly borrowed from a 1960s caper film. Later, she took us around the dam and cheered up noticeably when warning her young audience that all their skin would be sucked off if they fell into the surrounding waters.

The oddness continued in a nearby water-based theme park, with signature features including a model of a whale's phallus and a shed containing a small wind machine. Then we watched a clog-making demo (beaming man with drill and block of wood) and visited a shop containing vast quantities of overpriced Gouda cheese.

Some kind of reciprocal weirdness from our young charges was perhaps inevitable. Nonetheless, imagine our shock when we opened a bedroom door to discover three girls furtively sitting not with roll-ups, beers and boys, but with pens, calculators and textbooks. They had been caught revising for a minor maths test the following week. Thirteen-year-olds doing voluntary revision on a summer school trip? What were they playing at? Or not playing at?

Later, we witnessed more bewildering behaviour. Boys we had expected to be farting until dawn fell asleep discussing crossword puzzles. Bedrooms were immaculate, hostel instructions obeyed to the letter, agreed meeting times met with minutes to spare. When staff indulged in coffee, cake and chocolate, our concerned students urged us to instead share their root vegetables, berries and yogurt.

And whereas the children were neatly turned out, one of my colleagues, who was resting on a bench, was mistaken for a tramp. We know this because a passer-by kindly dismounted from her bicycle and tossed him a sandwich.

Perhaps a religious sect had got to our students on the ferry from Dover. Or maybe this simply reflects how parents and children are taught to regard everything educational today. School life is all about levels, about becoming organised, presentable, reliable, healthy and marketable. That isn't all bad, but frankly it's more Dutch dam than tulip - all about controlling and channelling. Slip down into the waters below and you've had it. It's partly a change for the good, yes, but so dull and restrictive with it.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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