News focus: The rise and rise of the school prom

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Back in the day - at least for today’s thirty and fortysomethings - leaving school was a rather mundane affair. It was one of those moments in life which, though laden with trepidation, came and went without much fanfare. If you were lucky, the teachers threw a ‘school disco’ in the gymnasium.

It was something you looked forward to with increasing impatience and then, when it finally arrived, you almost didn’t want it to go and the much anticipated act of leaving school would slip suddenly out of your grasp and in the next moment the big bad world would turn around and glare at you and ask, ‘What now, clever clogs?’

I remember leaving school in what was then known as the ‘fifth year’ - there was bravado, at one point a nonchalant shrug and not even a backwards glance as I swaggered through the gates.

Two weeks into my new course at Huddersfield New College, butterflies still swirling round my stomach, I tucked my tail between my legs and begged to be let into the sixth form at my old school.

These days, the process of leaving school is so much more memorable, so much more, how to put it, defined. And it’s thanks, in part to the growth of an American tradition: the school prom.

No more dingy discos with dodgy lights, no more rows of squashed sandwiches and cold greasy sausage rolls which have clearly been bought from the budget supermarket. No more ‘so what?’

These days it’s glitz and glamour all the way.

As I turn wait in the car park at Wakefield’s Cedar Court Hotel for pupils from Thornhill Academy (of TV’s Educating Yorkshire fame), I am nervously watching the thunderclouds roll in.

Sure enough, ten minutes before the first of them arrives, the heavens unleash a deluge like something from Noah.

Taking shelter in the foyer, I find ebullient head Johnny Mitchell and deputy Matthew Burton. Mr Mitchell is everything you imagine him to be - confident, down to earth and with an easy-going charm but with an eye for detail and as two small children run past toward a wedding reception (also taking place), he jokes: “Stop running, tuck your shirts in.”

Outside, as I stand and chat with Mr Burton and wait for the first of the students to arrive, he is recognised by two separate groups, both of whom laud praise upon him - one adds she wishes he had been her teacher.

“Does this happen a lot?” I ask and he nods and shrugs at the same time. But the day is not about him, it’s about his pupils and those who arrive turn up in style.

Before long - and thankfully during a break in the rain - two stretched limos turn up, one behind the other, then a Porsch 911, then a Mercedes and later more limos and even a long-wheeled base Landrover, from which clamber an incongruous number of people all done up in evening wear.

It’s par for the course for what has become a rite of passage for schoolchildren just about everywhere. And it’s not just the cars, it’s the clothes.

As they each step elegantly from their respective “rides”, there’s a flash of pride and excitement on their faces - all the boys are wearing sharp suits and tuxedos, whereas the girls resemble something out of a Disney princess movie, replete in full ballgowns.

It’s something the children have been looking forward to for at least a couple of years, says Mr Burton.

“It’s a big thing, yes, they will have been looking forward to it for some time, because they’ve seen previous years go through the same thing. The school prom these days is a reward for hard work, it’s not a right in the sense they all get to go - some don’t. They have to earn it. It’s certainly a change from what I had at school.

“Because we see the kids five days a week from 8am-5pm, we’re almost like their parents - we are in loco parentis, as it were - and we are proud to see them leave and go out into the world and the kids really love this. It’s a real celebration, even though they don’t actually leave until July. Tonight, we’ll have about 80 kids, which is half the year group.

“It’s good because it allows they to say a proper goodbye to everyone, it’s a formal event so they make a real effort and they enjoy doing that, especially after all the hard work they have done.”

The prom night also includes a formal three-course meal, disco and non-alcoholic bar.

Melissa Andrews, 16, said: “It’s something you look forward to all year and because you want to go, you make sure you behave. When you come to this, you have to look your best.”

Corey Boulton, 16, added: “It allows you to see everyone and to make sure it’s not the last time you say goodbye.”

The event doesn’t come off without a good deal of planning by the school, which began with began with a pre-prom fashion show back in February - that alone is a fillip to local businesses. Aside from bridal outfit shops and tuxedo hire, there’s also catering, balloon firms and limousine companies, all of whom take a share of what is now a seasonal bonanza.

Ray Brookshsaw, from Doncaster-based Balloons Away, provided the balloons for Thornhill Academy’s prom for free but said the prom season was now more important than ever.

Ray, who worked as a CID police officer for 26 years and is now in his 60s, set up the business with wife Brenda in 1995.

He said: “Back in 1995 when we started the business, I didn’t know the word prom, I don’t know what you would have called it back then. Now it’s such a big part of our year.It’s tremendous. Last year we did about 28 proms, at some points we were doing three proms a day.

“It’s important to us in terms of the income but it’s also important in terms of future business, so things like engagements and so on - people turn 18 and later on get engaged or married and they come back to us because they remember we did their school prom.

“It is true to say it’s an Americanism, like Hallowe’en, which has come over to this country but it’s really important to us. The market is absolutely huge now.

“The school committees will begin planning things like this in September so they can get just what they want.

He added: “We offered the school free balloons because, like everyone else, we admired what they did on the TV programme and the way they conducted themselves.”

Thornhill Academy’s fairytale prom ended at midnight but judging by the mood of the staff and pupils it will live on a lot longer than that in their memories.

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