End-of-term discos are so last year

US-style proms are taking over Britain's primary schools
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The Independent Online

In two weeks' time, dozens of pupils at St George's primary school, Dorset, will dress up in their very finest clothes and gather for a celebration that many will have been anticipating excitedly for weeks.

Each will have paid £3 for their ticket to the event, which marks the conclusion of their final year at primary school. In return, they can enjoy a finger buffet laid on by the school, a selection of soft drinks, a dance at the disco and the thrill of staying up after dark. By the time they head for home, two hours later, they will have cast their vote. Two votes, to be precise: one for Prom King and one for Prom Queen. Because this isn't just any old leavers' do. It's the Primary School Prom.

The idea of a prom – a staple of countless American rom-coms – sounds incongruous when adopted by under-12s on the Dorset coast. But the prom at St George's is by no means exceptional. If anything, it's rather modest. Invitations don't specify a dress code and tickets are cheap. Elsewhere, things haven't been so restrained.

Last month, the BBC reported that East Renfrewshire Council had been petitioned by the parents of an 11-year old, who had wanted their child to be dropped off at the prom in a helicopter. In the event, it was decided that landing a helicopter on the grounds of the school – in this case Mearns Primary in Newton Mearns – was not, all things considered, the best of ideas. Permission was denied.

Inevitably, tales like that of Mearns Primary and its helicopter parents have led to cries of youthful ruin and indulgence. Indeed, the school is by no means alone in holding a lavish event for its year-six "leavers"; increasingly, it seems, the ascent into the murky unknown of the secondary school playground is seen as an occasion worth marking with more than a special assembly or afternoon tea party. In Scotland, the prom phenomenon is already well-established and increasingly students across the rest of the UK are getting in on the act too, whether it is the year sixes at Avondale Primary School in Darwen, West Minster and Rose Street Schools in Kent or the Our Lady and St Benedict Catholic Primary School, Abbey Hulton in Stoke-on-Trent.

Search for "Primary School Prom" on Facebook, and you are immediately directed to dozens of events, each one boasting its own dress code, theme and venue. Some, such as St George's, advertise their own Prom King and Queen competition. Others, like the Abercarn Primary Prom in south Wales, issue dress codes prescribing dresses for the girls and smart trousers for boys. On the website of Bricknell Primary School, in Kingston-upon-Hull, photos from the past few years show Year Six pupils in high heels and mini-tuxedos standing alongside chauffeur-driven classic cars and personal limousines.

Jenny Shepherd runs a business catering for just such occasions. Her All Star Mobile Disco in Kent has been providing music and lighting to one-off events for years, from weddings and company parties to school leavers' balls and proms. Recently, she says, she has registered a marked increase in business from younger clients. So much so that she has enlisted the expertise of her teenage son to help select the soundtrack.

"They have become quite grand affairs," she explains. "It is becoming more and more popular. We have three booked next week. The American influence has had an effect. People are more aware of the occasion. It used to be a case of a group trip to Frankie & Benny's but now it's about wearing a suit or looking glam."

In some cases, just as the post-coptergate doomsayers predicted, the prospect of a prom has prompted parents to pull out all the stops. Limousine rental firms report a significant boom in business from the under-13s, with parents prepared to pay £20-30 per head to have their offspring escorted in the ubiquitous stretch-limos. "Particularly in the Midlands and in London we've seen a massive boost," explains Martin Latner of rental company Limo Broker. "I remember when I got my first call from an 11-year-old. I was definitely surprised. We're expecting it to be twice as bad next year."

Marks & Spencer, too, cite an increase in girls party dress sales. A quick click through the BHS website, meanwhile, reveals 12 "prom dresses" for sale, and there is no shortage of tailors offering bespoke "tween" outfits for upwards of £60.

Such expenditure can be daunting for the parents involved – not to mention riddled with conflicting emotions. If a child has been bullied, or suffers low self-esteem, the desire to compensate by making sure one's son or daughter looks the best or has the coolest mode of transport can be intense. Michael Connellan of the Family and Parenting Institute sees it as part of a broader trend towards commercialising parenting.

"Proms can of course be fun," he observes. "But certain companies are now making big money from parents at prom time. They see children as soft commercial targets. An upsetting fact is that research shows children from poorer families are more likely to associate happiness with material wealth. So at prom time, it's they that feel pressured the most."

At the one state junior school in North London – where tickets for the year-six prom are currently on sale for a not inconsiderable £12 – the suggestion that the children go in boy-girl pairs, with the boys asking the girls, has prompted outrage amongst the parents. Still, the school decided to stick with the idea. "My daughter was coming home saying her friends had been invited by five boys each," says one mother, who asked not to be named. "It caused terrible anxiety until she was asked – though now she's largely forgotten that she has a partner. She just wants to go with her girlfriends. It seems like rather a lot of fuss for no reason."

Some parents are concerned not just by the pre-invite stress caused by such enforced pairing but also also at the disconcerting romantic implications. Should children be thinking in terms of "dates" – not to mention such strictly-defined defined gender roles – at such a young age? One should beware of being too prudish about such events. Not every so-called "prom" is a trigger for extravagant spending and elaborate etiquette.

In many instances, they are little more than the old leavers' disco – a long established rite of passage – rebranded to pander to a generation raised on Glee and High School Musical. At Meadowlane Primary in Cardiff what was once the Leavers Ceremony has been rechristened the "Prom". In essence, though, the event remains what it always was: a rather low-key event for dewy-eyed parents and their offspring to wallow in nostalgia. The smart dress code is well-established, the costs are covered by PTA fund-raising, and the post-ceremony disco decks are manned by the headteacher, Lee Thomas. There is scant sign of the heady commercialism or precociousness that the name suggests.

"There's not much money around here so we'd never do something extravagant," insists Mr Thomas. "But this event is something that everyone enjoys. We all get into the spirit of things – I even wear a bow tie."

It would be hard to take issue with Meadowlane's innocuous celebration. After all who wouldn't, aged 11, have relished the prospect of an end-of-school party in some form? This, broadly, seems to be the reasoning amongst parents as they navigate the conflicting prom pressures. Justine Roberts, co-founder and managing director of the online parenting forum Mumsnet, has seen the issue hotly debated in recent weeks. "In general Mumsnetters are sceptical about school proms," she says.

"As one of them puts it, the very thought of children going to a school prom in a helicopter makes them come over all Edwardian. But if you try to think of it as nothing more than a very pretty dress – well, then it's not really so bad."

History of the prom

* Inspired by debutante balls, proms, short for "promenades", were first described in high-society America. The earliest evidence comes in the journals of a male student at Amherst College, Massachusetts, after a visit to the girls-only Smith College for a prom in 1894.

* The idea soon spread to high schools where students, dressed in their Sunday best, attended tea dances. They quickly became more elaborate with the addition of lavish banquets.

* It was in the 1950s and the post-war economic boom that the prom really took off, becoming an important rite of passage for high school leavers. Tuxedos and gowns became de rigueur and swanky venues such as hotels or golf clubs took the place of school gyms. The most popular students were crowned Prom King or Queen.

* Like yearbooks and graduation photos, US-style proms have become increasingly popular in Britain over the past decade, popularised by films such as She's All That and American Pie.

* This year, a school in Mississippi caused a storm when it refused to allow a student to bring her girlfriend to a prom or wear a tuxedo. When a judge ruled that the girl's rights had been violated, the school cancelled the dance in protest.