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Page last updated at 11:07 GMT, Thursday, 3 July 2008 12:07 UK

Over school and over here

Furtherwick Park School pupils - PIC BY AI EVENTS

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Graduation used to be a rite restricted to students leaving university, but these days schoolchildren are getting in on the fun - with American-style proms to mark the end of the exam season.

The stretch limousine pulls up and out steps a young couple: he, suave in a tuxedo; she, tanned and glamorous. They stop for a photograph then saunter past the doorman.

The scene might resemble a Hollywood film premiere but none of the guests is more than 16 and the event is a school leavers' party in Canvey Island, Essex.

Napoleon Dynamite
There's Something About Mary
American Pie
Napoleon Dynamite (above)
Pretty in Pink
Back to the Future

British schoolchildren have traditionally witnessed school proms at arm's length - seeing them on screen, the setting for the climax of your average American teen flick in which the geek gets the girl and everyone dances, even the stuffy adults.

But now it's over here and it's growing in popularity. Schools have long had post-exam parties but now they are billed as proms, with all the trimmings that come with them. Some A level students stage them too and a school in Wales even threw a proms-style party for seven-year-olds.

And it's big business. For limo firms, upmarket dress shops, hairdressers and manicurists. Photographer Ricky Turrell says this is his busiest time of the year, with up to 10 proms a day across the UK for his firm, AI Events.

"It's been manic. The end of June is the busiest week then the first two weeks in July. Some go early in April or May."

Although the stretch limo is the most popular mode of transport, more imaginative options he has seen include a hearse, a fire engine, a bus and a 40-tonne lorry. And the outfits get more and more glitzy.

"The diamond bracelets are real, one of them I saw on a girl's wrist must have been 5,000. She said it was her mum's. Another girl let her mum spend 750 on her outfit."

Limo at Chingford Foundation School prom
Not Beverley Hills, but Chingford

Preparations at at one high school, in Cambridgeshire, began before Christmas, although the excitement in Year 11 started building long before that.

"Everyone was talking about who they were going to bring back in September because it's quite a big thing," says Sarah-Beth Amos, 16, who helped organise the school's prom last week. "But it's not like you have to have a date. I went with my friend but others went with a group of friends or on their own.

"It's great to go out and have a party. Whatever people say about GCSEs being easy, it was a lot of hard work and it was great to let our hair down."

The girls were more excited about the prom than the boys
Nicola Reed, 16

Sarah-Beth's arrival in a BMW convertible was modest compared to the horse-drawn carriage, orange Porsche, stretch Hummers and Rolls Royce pulling up alongside. There was also a tractor and a double-decker bus, watched by a hundred spectators crowded behind safety barriers lining the red carpet.

Two hundred of the year's 270 students, plus 30 to 40 staff, went along, paying 10 each for a buffet, a "casino" and a disco.


Girls in Macclesfield prepare for their American-style "proms party"

In Essex, pupils at Furtherwick Park School, Canvey Island, held their prom at the elegant Orsett Hall, which is a popular venue for weddings. Nicola Reed, 16, bought some jewellery and a necklace to go with her long, blue dress. She went to the hairdresser after school and her cousin did her make-up.

"The girls were more excited about the prom than the boys. They all talked about their hair but the boys didn't talk about it as much."

Teacher Kate Sawyer, who has organised the Essex school's prom for the last five or six years, says the appeal lies in the glamour.

Pupils at Furtherwick School in Essex
Outfits are bought, hired or borrowed

"It's going to an event in a posh car or some sort of posh vehicle. Most people don't want to turn up with their mum or dad. And then you have the dressing up. Daughters love dressing up. Give a girl any excuse to dress up!"

Many have their nails done and get fake tans, but they are only allowed one glass of wine with their meal and can't get drunk.

Efforts are made to try and find alternative, cheaper outfits for those that can't afford them, says Mrs Sawyer, to avoid feelings of exclusion.

But some parents think it has all gone too far - rather like trick or treating this is just another example of Britain mimicking American culture.

Coming of age

Deborah Hands, from Norwich, regrets what she describes as the "creeping Americanisation" of British schools.

"These days, GCSE leavers have yearbooks, with all that 'girl most likely' guff. And that's fine: why shouldn't headteachers pacify their pupils by imitating the high-school life of television's teatime soaps?" she wrote, in the First Post. "But after shelling out for my 16-year-old daughter's prom, I wonder if this trend is getting out of hand.

"That's right, a prom: ballgowns and long gloves, black ties, cummerbunds, and a king and queen crowned by the teachers. The cost? Twenty quid a ticket - and hundreds on the rest."

In terms of celebrating an achievement and now becoming an adult, that's a really good thing
Broadcaster Sarah Newton

There's also a fine line to treat between reward and over-indulgence, says broadcaster Sarah Newton, author of Help My Teenager is an Alien.

"I think it's really important to celebrate achievements. We have no coming of age ceremonies like other cultures, therefore in terms of celebrating an achievement and now becoming an adult, that's a really good thing and should be encouraged.

"The challenge comes when celebration and achievement is versus indulgence and pressure [to look beautiful]."

Parents have to be realistic about what they can afford and resist trying to live through their children, she says.

They should also use it as an opportunity to talk to them about the responsibilities of adulthood. Worthy motives perhaps, but judging by the excitement of Nicola Reed and her fellow prom-goers, one thing they're not in the mood for after five years of secondary school and countless exams, is another lesson.

Here is a selection of your comments.

I attended my first prom eight years ago and they were very common in Scotland at that time - a nice step between the traditional school disco and a formal ball. The real problem is parents who are prepared to shell out hundreds to emulate American-style excess. Most at my school were happy with an evening dress and clubbing together, paying fifteen pounds each for a limousine. Prom is about a break from the norm and a special treat, not trying to outdo each other.
Grace, Stirling

I am head of year 11 and organised the leavers' dinner this year. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it and feel that my year group deserved it. Every student without exception worked hard for their exams. They wanted a dinner, I wanted to do it, the parents wanted their children to have one. Everyone's happy, where is the problem?
Louise, Trowbridge

Britain is already suffering enough problems of its own. The prom trend can only widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The last thing we need is adopting even more Americanisms and the problems it brings with it. Britain needs to be moving more to the left rather than the right.
Gordon, London

I teach at a sixth form college and every year we ask the students if they want a prom, but every year they say that a) it's too expensive and b) they'd rather celebrate by going clubbing.
Megan, Cheshire UK

My daughter hasn't even finished Middle school yet and is already looking at dresses etc for her prom in 4 years time. She has drawings of the type of dress she wants and how her hair will be. Although it sounds real silly - it's a BIG moment to look forward to for these girls.
Paul/C., Whitley Bay, UK

Having a party or dance is OK but I don't like all the trappings of Hollywood glamour. Stretch limousines, champagne and all the rest is not really part of British culture and is at best garish and at worst divisive and ostentatious
Paul, Nottingham

My old school as far as I can recall has been doing this from at least 1996 I wouldn't necessarily say it's an American thing either .. people hire limos for all sorts of occasions, and schools arrange these parties in external locations so the kids get together and hire transport.. why take a taxi when you can go in a limo?!
Wayne Binney, Sheffield, UK

One of the more vile imports from American culture, a shameful emphasis on conspicuous consumption and of little value. We had celebrations at school too. They were called school discos, and cost about 30p to attend, requiring no limos, tuxedos or tiaras. What an utter waste.
Rob Walker, kidderminster

My son (14)and 11 of his friends were all picked up in a stretched limo for their end of school prom. There is a three-school-tier system in this area and this was their last day at middle school. It worked out at around 25 per person but the limo driver drove them all around town for about an hour before dropping them off at the school. He said that the limo drive was the best part of the night.
John Pearce, Whitby

Another nail in the coffin of national identity in this country and another successful US import to add to gun crime, street gangs and the ever expanding compensation-litigation culture...
Jeff C, London, UK

I have to correct the idea that Halloween 'trick or treating' is an American import to Britain. 'Guising' at Halloween is an ancient Scottish tradition which was taken to America. The only difference is that guisers are supposed to do something for their treat, proverbially sing a song or tell a joke. The prom thing is truly American, and not good.
Gordon, Aberdeen, Scotland

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