Dresses, limos, exhausted parents: all the fun of the primary school prom

Jul 20, 2014 by

The transition to ‘big school’ used to be a quiet affair. Now, with spectacular parties, teacher tributes and lavish ceremonies, the end of term is becoming more stressful than Christmas

Should you happen to see a stretch limousine cruising along your street in the next few days, the chances are that there is not a reality TV star lurking inside. It will almost certainly be filled with colourfully dressed, giggling 11-year-olds.

End-of-term madness has gripped British primary schools. Once upon a time the nerve-racking rite of passage from primary to secondary school was marked with a valedictory speech from the headteacher and a bit of felt-pen shirt-signing in the playground. There might possibly have been a disco featuring cups of orange squash, iced-ring biscuits and emotional parents lining the walls of the school hall.

But that was definitely then. These days, there are leavers’ assemblies, concerts, talent shows, discos, proms, formal dances, picnics and day trips. For those leaving primary school, end of term has turned into a week-long fiesta. A goodbye hug or handshake from teacher is no longer enough. Now they have to write each pupil an individual tribute that records their personality and achievements. Glittering proms take place as a matter of course. A specially printed hoodie is de rigueur.

Like so many commercially advantageous crazes, the pre-teen rite-of-passage industry came here from America, where children have graduation ceremonies at nursery and proms have spawned enormously lucrative businesses. But Sally Bates, headteacher of Wadsworth Fields Primary in Nottingham, says she thinks there is an enormous value in helping children and parents mark an important and sometimes nervous transition from primary to secondary. “We don’t want children to leave us to spend six weeks feeling anxious about their next school, so we do a lot to prepare them not just academically but socially too.

“What we know is that children are living in a changing world and we need to protect and guide them through it, make them feel secure. Our year sixes have a vote on what they want to do: the first year it was a prom but the next two years it was a trip to the seaside, and this year they’ve gone to an activity centre. They plan it themselves and raise funds through the year, so no parent is asked for money. They love it, but we see benefits of it too. Leaving primary is an emotional time and a time to celebrate every child for the person they are.”

The ceremony of departure performs a service for parents as well. “Its emotional for parents too: they are starting to recognise that these are young adults going forward, but also children. The transition is also about them stepping up to the next role of responsibility. Parents do feel a bit under threat when their children are this age: they see that their influence is about to melt away. But we are still a primary school and make sure that the last two or three weeks aren’t just about the leavers but for the other children too.”

For teachers the final week of term has become the storm before the relative calm of the summer holidays. “All weekend I was writing the individual tributes to each child in my class for our leaver’s assembly,” said Fiona Kemp, a primary teacher from Lincolnshire. “Monday was escorting over 60 kids to a theme park. Tuesday was a picnic and games, and meeting my class for next year. Wednesday was all about activities – which are a lot trickier to come up with than lessons, I assure you! The leavers’ disco is this week. It’s been utterly exhausting. My friend teaches at a primary school in Edinburgh and they have had this kind of thing for several years now, but it’s new to me.”

The costs can be daunting. Aimee Woolley, 36, from Tipton, made headlines when she was revealed to have taken on a second job as a cleaner to get her daughter Beth – who is 11 – a £200 prom dress and a £300 hired limousine for her school prom. “I just wanted to give my daughter the biggest, best prom she could imagine,” she said.

But the prom phenomenon is by no means unique to Beth Woolley’s primary school. The trend is catching on around the country: high street store Debenhams has brought out a new range of prom dresses, the smallest suitable for four-year-olds. It is, a spokesperson for parenting website Parentsoutloud.com told the Daily Mail, “verging on madness … this is an American trend we could have lived without, a total mass marketing event which runs on parent blackmail.”

Is that true? Or is it simply a controlled rite of passage that we should allow Aimee and Beth to enjoy? No parent wants to leave their children to stage their own peer-inspired initiation rites into adulthood, possibly involving alcopops and internet porn. Nevertheless, author and parenting writer Tanith Carey says the end of term now rivals Christmas in terms of the demands it places on busy parents.

“These days parents who have children in year six have to clear their diaries for a full fortnight of leavers’ assemblies, farewell trips and prize-givings and proms. That’s on top of the usual hectic round of summer fairs, open days and sports days.”

She shares the concerns of some educational psychologists that it’s not a good idea to reward children for doing things they should be doing anyway – like turning up for school. “Leaving primary is a rite of passage, but it shouldn’t take on the character of a Hello!-style celebrity sendoff. It’s as if primary schools have bought into the idea that children need the red carpet rolled out for them to move on secondary school.”

Some schools have been planning events similar to awards ceremonies, in which giant images of the children are flashed up on screens. Carey blames the advent of the prom for accelerating the trend towards increasingly ostentatious events.

“The primary school prom puts more pressure on children and parents alike, forcing 10- and 11-year-old girls and boys into prematurely sexualised roles many simply aren’t ready for. Instead of thinking about what they have learned and achieved, the end of term becomes about whose is wearing what and anxiety about who has a date, when many children are not developmentally ready.”

The bigger the events get, the more uncomfortable it makes a child who hasn’t enjoyed primary school, and the bigger the guilt trip for parents.

“It’s very hard for parents to have to repeatedly duck out of the office at lunchtime, or leave early virtually every day for two weeks before the end of term,” says Carey. “Even though more women are working than ever before, I spoke to one working parent recently whose daughter had not one but three separate end-of-term sports days in the same week. The school had started separating the events into track events, swimming and field events with cycling to mark the Olympics – and then decided to keep on doing it. It’s a nice idea: but a stress for working parents who know how disappointed their children are if they don’t see their face in the crowd.

“I also think making a huge fuss about leaving primary serves to make children more nervous and unsettled about starting secondary school, when it should just feel like a natural progression.

“Event-ism is happening further down schools too. My own daughter had a graduation ceremony, complete with mortar boards, gowns and degree scrolls, when she left her prep school – in year two.”

And if you think you have almost got through the last days of term with your nerves and your wallet or purse intact, don’t forget this is also the season of teacher gifting – and the end-of-term little box of chocolates is out of fashion. A survey last week conducted by the gift card company One4all asked 500 teachers to say what they would most like to receive. Almost 70% said they are commonly given alcohol and that is the most popular present. The second most popular was gift vouchers, followed by handmade presents.

More than one in 10 parents told researchers they gave presents to improve their relationship with teachers and 5% even admitted to giving gifts in the hope of improving their children’s grades. But it seemed those efforts may have been wasted: 23% of teachers said they gave unwanted gifts to charity and 9% even regifted them – passing on the items to relatives at Christmas or birthdays.

It’s a minefield. So perhaps we should ease up on those limos and red carpets: after all, parents have now got the summer holidays to get through.

via Dresses, limos, exhausted parents: all the fun of the primary school prom | Society | The Observer.

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