IT IS prom night and the young people are dressed to the nines - the girls in elegant dresses, make-up and heels, the boys in tuxedos or kilts. Stepping out of the stretch limos and Humvees their parents have hired, they are excited, all ready to celebrate leaving school -  primary school, that is. Their average age is 11.

Across Scotland , the pre-teen prom - an American-style celebration to mark the end of primary school - is catching on. But while some parents like the idea others are concerned . Which is it: rite of passage or too much, too young?

Diane Anderson, one of the parents who has helped organise the leaving prom at St Mary’s in Leith , sees no problem “I would have loved something like this when I was 11, ” she says. “I remember we had a leaving dance. We practised the St Bernard’s Waltz for weeks then we went to the chippy. I didn’t get a new dress – I had a cast-off – and there was no limo. There is no way my parents could have afforded that. I think the reason we go to all this extravagance is to give our children the things we never had. I work fulltime to give them all that.”

My daughter Mary, who leaves primary this year, also loves the idea of the prom, and bought a dress and heels to wear to an Oscars-themed leaving dance organised by parents at her school. On the day she bought them, she also lost a baby tooth.

“Parents just don’t want to see their children growing up because it makes them feel old, ” says Mary. But she is already upset at the idea of leaving school – and, having seen children in previous years having to be carried out weeping, I have been asking myself if parents are making too big a deal of this transition.

At George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, a large independent school all on one site, where the primary sevens are literally moving next door, the school wrote to parents asking them not to hire limousines for the primary leaving dance. “It was just too difficult for the parents who weren’t using stretch limos to get into the drive, ” says marketing manager Fiona MacFarlane. But she adds that she does not see anything wrong in principle with making a big deal of the event. “It is their first big dance. My own son arrived in a sports car with the roof down.”

Mother-of-four Nuala Gormley, whose 11-year-old son Oscar is leaving primary school this year, feels rather differently. “I think it is crazy, ” she says of the prom. “We’re creating rites of passage for our children when they are not really necessary. I worry that they will lose sight of those moments in their development that are really significant. It’s like schools that give children who leave nursery a cap and gown. If this was for a graduation, at least they would have done a degree But starting secondary is really just moving on.”

Marion Roy, head of Auchenback Primary in East Renfrewshire , is also concerned by the trend. At her school, as at many others, it is the parents who organise the prom. “I think we have to ask ourselves: why are we doing this?” says Marion . “I don’t think it was started by the children; it was started by the parents. In my area there isn’t a lot of money around, but money is found for this. Is that the best use of resources?

“There is also the issue of how they are dressed. It is not such a problem with the boys – they look very handsome in their kilts, although they are expensive to hire. The girls look lovely, too, but a lot of them are dressed in such an adult way. Some of the dresses are long but you get the short ones as well, plus the heels and the make-up. I don’t think girls of 11 and 12 should be sending out messages like that. Personally, I think it is depriving them of their childhood.

“Eleven- and 12-year-olds now are more like what 14-year-olds were a generation ago. And there is peer pressure. I have had girls who are bigger than their peer group feeling very upset. And I had a ittle girl once who didn’t want to go because she had nothing to wear. I said to her, ‘It is not the clothes that maketh the person – you have got qualities that money can’t buy.’ I hope those kind of values stay with them.”

She says she feels schools are powerless to do anything about the proms or the way the children dress. “There is no point in me telling the parents not to buy new dresses, because they will anyway. And it is not just parents whose views have to taken into account – children have to be consulted, too. If they want a prom, that has to be taken on board.

SCOTTISH folk musician Dave Francis, who features on the soundtrack of Sex and the City, also has a daughter leaving primary school this year. He believes the phenomenon of the primary prom was sparked by American films such as High School Musical.

“Movies that feature 15- or 16-year-old American kids are being watched by kids of 10, 11 and 12, ” he says. “Those films often revolve around the prom, and our kids want to have the same experience even though they are only leaving primary school.”

He says his daughter, Ada , will be going to the dance in a limo and then on for a pizza with her friends – without any adult supervision. “We are happy with the dress she has picked out, and she’s going to wear it with baseball boots because that is the kind of look she is into. I like the idea that half a dozen 11- and 12-yearolds can sit down and have a meal together without being really stupid about it. But it all seems very adult. It’s not what I was doing at her age. I just ran out of the gate of the primary school and thought, ‘Well, that’s it.'” Dave, who also teaches music in schools, says many places mark the transition with special songs, or the whole school forms a guard of honour for the primary sevens to run through. “I think it is really nice, ” he says. But he has seen children become upset: “Sometimes they do become very distressed. I’m not sure where that hysteria starts,

but when it does it spreads very easily and it is difficult to stop. ” Even those who benefit from the trend for proms – such as limousine companies, for whom they are a growing source of orders – are divided on whether they are a good thing or not.

“I think it’s great. I wish they’d had this when I was 12, ” says Helen Doherty of Edinburgh Limousines. “When I left primary, all I got was a bag of chips on the way home.”

Pat Sheridan of Main Event Limos in Clydebank, by Glasgow , often takes groups of children to their primary leaving dances. “They get all dressed up: ballgowns, tuxes, kilts. They are very young and there can be a lot of pressure on parents to provide these things. It is good business for me, but I can see both sides of it.”

He says having a full-scale prom at the age of 11, with a new outfit, shoes, limo and meal, has raised the stakes for high school. “When it comes to the older kids who are leaving school, we pick them up after the dance and then they often have cabins booked for the night by Loch Lomond . They say they are off to party up at the lochs. They just seem to come up with bigger and better things to do.”

SO WHAT is a parent to do? Child psychologist Linda Blair – the author of Straight Talking, which advises parents how to deal with the pressures of a consumerist society – believes the primary prom does raise some concerns. So, should I have insisted Mary sport plaits and sandals?

“No, I think that would be cruel, ” says Linda. “But I don’t think this sounds at all appropriate for this age group – and I don’t think [the idea] can really be coming from the children.”

What should families do, then, given the amount of peer pressure involved? “I think you manage it, ” she says. “You set a budget and you say, GBP50 is more than enough for this. You can even say, ‘I know everyone else is spending GBP80. Let’s give GBP30 to a good cause and see what we can do with GBP50. Let’s be creative.'” Blair suggests that, in future years, parents who don’t like the idea of a prom should make other suggestions. “You have to lead.

Get in early and suggest something where, for instance, the kids get really muddy instead of getting all dolled up. Or they could do something together to raise money for a good cause. I’m sure they would have a lot more fun.”

Even the hippies couldn’t destroy it .

. Proms were relatively common in the US by the 1920s but became much more widespread in the economic boom following the Second World War. With the rise of youth culture in the 1950s, they became more extravagant.

. The counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s produced a backlash against an event that was seen as an establishment ritual, but the 1980s and 1990s saw a resurgence in their popularity, fuelled by films, magazines, pop music and TV.

. One common feature of the prom is the giving of a corsage, a small bouquet of flowers, by boys to their dates. The word corsage means “on the body”, as these gifts are generally worn around the wrist or attached to the dress by girls who receive them.

. Prom is an abbreviation of promenade. When the word first appeared in English in the sixteenth century, it meant to walk in public in order to display oneself. By the late nineteenth century, it was used to refer particularly to a formal dance or ball at a school or college, and the short form “prom” dates from this era.

The Herald
21st June 2008