The taster day for our incoming Year 7s was going smoothly and sweetly – or at least it was until I was sent on late in the afternoon, like a footballing impact sub. Assigned one of the concluding tutor group sessions, I made exactly the same schoolteacher error as last year: “So, do you have any questions?”
I immediately remembered what this would do to the beautifully arranged, multicoloured bouquet of ageing primary-school uniforms before me. Arms began to sprout up everywhere; a late burst of life from all those soon-to-be-discarded jumpers.
Despite the class experiencing a whole day of fixed, reassuring smiles (or perhaps partly because of that), their questions revealed the usual deep-seated fears. They kicked off, as expected, with a volley of queries about the school’s (perfectly humane) punitive system.
Their interrogation was both thorough and incisive – something of a surprise, as the new national Sats results appeared to imply that about half the bright young things before me were “substandard”. They certainly had enough intellect to have me on the ropes as I tried to fend off their legal, moral and philosophical jabbing: What degree of wrongdoing merited a detention and how exactly was that decided? Did the length of the detention depend on the gravity of the offence? What was the exact aim – punishment or rehabilitation?
Momentum gathering, their enquiries moved on to even darker-sounding punishments – suspensions, isolations and exclusions. (Presumably they had got wind of all this from older siblings.) One girl had even heard about “permanent executions”, although I assured her that these were very rare indeed.
The truth is that all forms of incarceration are rare in Year 7. Very few will be “kept in” next year. They really ought to be asking me questions about the opposite notion of “going out”. This will take a much stronger hold of them next year, as the seeds of romance start to grow. Not that I would be any better equipped to answer such questions. I’m not sure that I understand what “going out” in Year 7 means any more.
We hear the occasional tale, for instance, of certain Year 7s “going out” with as many as 15 different people just in one lunch break. This may sound shocking but then we discover that this “going out” does not involve any actual assignations. The fickle hiring and firing is a mere Instagram “favourite” thing.
Another Year 7 pair officially “went out” for a whole year. Their status was online for all to see. It turned out that they never actually spoke, met or physically “went out” anywhere. Their friends did not seem to find this odd and never questioned the couple’s attachment to each other.
Year 7 relationships seem, increasingly, to be like a modern-day monetary transaction – usually conducted electronically without either party having to do much. Maybe I am wrong, but this new “going out” (ie, not actually going out) feels like a welcome development.
This is not to ignore the real perils of the internet, sexting and so on. But at a time when the received wisdom is that today’s children are all growing up too fast, maybe some aspects of the internet are actually reversing that process? Year 7 “going out” has become suitably meaningless, less emotional and less time-consuming, while still providing those vital developmental opportunities for harmless gossip, “fancying” and teasing. Surely this is better than it was for us, when the end of “going out” with someone really did feel like a “permanent execution”?
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire