“Room M24 is definitely this way,” Harry announces to the rest of Class 7B, who are trailing behind him. The tutor group follows him dutifully into the distance, a tentative crocodile in freshly pressed, if slightly-too-big, uniforms. Two of the very smallest are almost entirely hidden beneath their new and comparatively vast rucksacks – essentially, a protective carapace in a world where large predators are circling and threatening to swoop at any moment.
Harry is not afraid to stick his neck out. He has been at the school only for about an hour but he is already emerging as a figurehead in his tutor group. Impressively decisive and self-assured, he displays admirable leadership qualities. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that he has the faintest idea where he’s going. (As we all know, this is a familiar story at all ages and all levels of the educational hierarchy.)
“He’s got it wrong again,” whispers bright little Megan to Alice. “This just takes us back to where we started.”
Megan and Alice have been best friends since nursery school and are deeply relieved to be still together in the same class, given the sudden overbearing presence of Harry in their lives. But even though Megan knows the right way, she would never dream of breaking away and heading off in another direction.
No one leaves the herd at this early stage. Natural selection means that a new Year 7 tutor group automatically sticks together. They might briefly separate to go foraging for food (doughnuts from the canteen, for instance) but the herd soon regroups to resume their quest to find the next lesson.
Evolutionary instinct tells them that this is their best chance of surviving the looming packs in the playground. It’s much less hurtful to hear collectively, rather than personally, those familiar cries of derision from the freshly elevated Year 8s. Similarly, it feels less belittling to hear a Year 9 girl’s patronising “Oh look! a little minion!” if you’re one of many to whom it could apply.
Many Year 7s are also mindful of dark, apocryphal tales surrounding the fate of young strays from yesteryear. Reason enough to follow the universal Year 7 adage: “Better to walk the wrong way together than to walk the right way alone.”
Leader of the pack
So, given this powerful herd instinct, how can we help the Year 7 tutor group travel in the right direction? Simple. We just need to find a more suitable navigational leader. Not the form tutor, however. He or she will often be no better than Harry at leading the children around the site, given that so many Year 7 tutor groups are given to NQTs and other staff who are themselves completely new to the school. No debutant teacher should be expected to risk this early humiliation.
There is a better option: during the usual introductory form period at the start of the first day, every Year 7 tutor should show pupils a room-map of the school and hold a multiple-choice quiz on it. The questions should simply ask students to pick the best route from one classroom number to another.
The highest-scoring pupil should immediately be appointed the official “Tutor Group TomTom”. Everyone else must follow this human satnav at all times. In this way, the likes of Harry are prevented from automatically assuming the lead. Instead, someone with a natural sense of direction – the less-assuming Megan, for instance – rightfully takes charge.
It’s a flawless plan. Nothing can go wrong. (“What do you mean, ‘Megan’s run off crying because she doesn’t want to be in charge and hates being called a satnav’?”)
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire