This is not the blog I was going to write. Proms make me uncomfortable and I was happily planning a witty hit piece, but the discussion generated by a poll I ran a week or so back made me wonder if I was just being a curmudgeon. Now, while I still think they are profoundly problematic, I’m pretty sure just scrapping them would be a mistake.
Instead of going through all the reasons I dislike these parties, I’m going to explain why they are contextually problematic before proposing how we could adapt them.
Prom events is are an American import which make little sense in the context of the English education system. “Prom”, and I had to look this up, is actually short for “promenade”, which was the formal introductory parading of guests at a party. They began as graduation celebrations in 19th century co-educational American universities and, over time, spread into high schools. In the US they take place after a graduation ceremony in which children are presented certificates that prove they have successfully completed their compulsory education. This makes sense. In America, where teachers grade students themselves, graduating from high school is not automatic, requiring young people to achieve a passing grade in a range of subjects. It is quite possible to finish school but not graduate. The certificate has some value with employers and further education expecting it. This is why some students repeat years; if they haven’t yet achieved passing grades, they won’t graduate so stay on. Traditionally, the students themselves organised the celebratory party and staff weren’t expected to get very involved beyond vetoing inappropriate suggestions.
England is different. Finishing Y11 is not in itself an achievement. Everyone finishes and nobody asks whether or not a child ‘graduated high school.’ Instead, success or failure is assessed on the grades children achieve in external examinations. This makes the concept of a prom problematic. These generally take place months before grades come out which means nobody knows how successful the attendees have been, making it impossible to know whether or not there is anything worth celebrating. Instead, schools generally decide on prom attendance using behavioural and attendance criteria; nice children, regardless of their ability, get to go and challenging children, particularly those of lower ability, generally don’t. This is understandable but misguided because it takes the focus of schools away from academic achievement and onto behavioural compliance for its own sake. For many years I have been puzzled and frustrated by those young people for whom prom attendance is the main aim of Year 11, who won’t spend £3 on a revision guide but will happily put down £200 on a dress. In all the glitz and time-consuming excitement of organising them, schools that use prom as a behaviourist carrot to try and keep borderline students on role until July can very easily lose sight of the point; ultimately, what does it matter if a child attends up to the end of the year if they have nothing to show for it on results day?
Given how different the English context is to the American one, the rise and rise of proms needs some unpicking. The most cynical explanation is that they have grown because of American popular culture, which was aided and abetted by limousine and ball dress companies, which escalated as a result of peer pressure and competitive parents. This was the position at which I’d arrived before I ran my poll, when I would have been quite happy to leave it at that and advocate an, ideally Ministerial level, blanket ban.
But now I think that doing this, without replacing them with something else, would be wrong.
Schools don’t run proms just because of Americanisation and capitalism. Staff work hard helping young people to organise them because they want to celebrate one of life’s most important milestones. It is interesting to note that often it seems the more disadvantaged the area the flashier the party. The most advantaged of our schools often don’t run them at all. But, of course, there’s lots they do instead; prize giving ceremonies, awards evening, dinners and even balls. Schools that do this, as actually my own did, generally do focus on the academic success of their students. These schools have a culture of achievement and attainment and are confident that enough children will do well to make these events significant and memorable. But tor schools where great results are rarer, it is more complicated and, in the context in which they operate, the criteria for success has been lowered. What should such schools do? Nothing and allow their students to scuttle unheralded out into the world, shamefaced and subservient?
While I am sure this would be a mistake it doesn’t mean we should continue with events that, as well-meaning as they are, lower academic expectations and reward the bare minimum.
We could give our celebration events a more academic feel by holding them the autumn of the next academic year. This would allow us to hand out GCSE results and special awards, printed on high quality certificates, perhaps rolled up with a ribbon, to our students on a stage. There could be a speech before the party begins. If we must be Americanized then we should at least get it right, and this would actually be more in keeping with the original spirit. Of course, this would mean our students would have to return to the school, but I think this would be rather lovely; we’d get to catch up and see how they’re doing in their colleges or apprenticeships. For me at least, it’d make the wrench of seeing them go after their final exam less painful too. Of course, some might not choose to come back but by not doing so, they’d demonstrate they probably weren’t that bothered about it to begin with.
If we did I’d happily get over an ugly snobbery that says far more about me than it does about what teenagers want at their parties which, quite frankly, is none of my business. In fact, I’ll go further. Throw in a sit down dinner after the certificates and awards and I’ll stop saying “Carrie” when asked for a suggestion on the theme. Make the speech meaningful and keep it free of bullshit and I’ll even do the bloody birdy dance in front of everyone if I’m lucky enough to be invited.