Extravagant graduation dos take cues from the Kardashians – and the industry is said to be worth £80m in the UK – but not everyone is willing to splash out
“Helicopters? It’s absolutely ridiculous! What’s that about?” says Gary Chinery, head of year 11 at Blackburn central high school.
Chinery is supervising arrangements for the school prom. There will be no helicopters. Tickets are £10 and everyone is welcome.
Extravagant US-style proms have become a multimillion-pound business in the UK, with some parents spending hundreds of pounds on a dress or suit, hair, makeup and luxury vehicle hire for their 16-year-old, and even more on the pre- and post-prom parties.
Chinery, however, has done it on a tight budget – calling on friends, contacts and local businesses for donations – with the aim of making the post-GCSE party available to all. The PE teacher and his friends have loaned dresses, the local Co-op has laid on the limousines and the evening promises to be a brilliant success.
BCHS serves a community that includes areas of deprivation. “It’s a fantastic family school,” says Chinery, who has been with the same group of youngsters since they started aged 11. “I’ve got really attached to these students. I wanted everybody to come and celebrate at the end of the year if possible.”
On Tuesday night, 120 16-year-olds will dress up in their finest for a three-course dinner at a local hotel. There will be 150 cupcakes with the school logo, one photographer, two limousines and goodie bags. Looking on will be 60 proud members of staff – none more so than Chinery.
Sarah Burns runs Prom Fayres UK, which stages events to bring together the burgeoning number of businesses providing prom services and school prom organisers. She claims the industry – from the venue and car hire to the designer dresses, chocolate fountains, fun casinos and spray tan – is worth £80m.
“Some of the mothers look at it as a mini-wedding,” she says. “They get really giddy, the mums. The girls love it because it’s their first red carpet event – they’re watching what goes on in America, they’re into the Kardashians.”
There are, however, prom refuseniks. One UK headteacher estimated that 30% of his year-11s would not turn up for one reason or another. (In the US, high school students boycott official proms and organise “morps” – prom backwards – as an alternative.)
Orsett Hall in Essex is a veteran venue in the school prom business. It has been hosting them for the last 15 years, and this season it has 35 bookings over the next few weeks – even squeezing two in on one night to fit them all in.
For £39.95 – the most expensive package – you get a three-course meal, limitless soft drinks, a DJ, one bouncer and the services of a prom coordinator. Extras include a photo booth (£350 for three hours and 200 prints), thrones for the prom king and queen (£30), a red carpet (£25) and the hire of the bridal suite to get ready for the evening (£150).
Hair and makeup packages include two “hair ups” for £50; a spray tan, gelish nails with “hair up” for £70, or full makeup plus “hair up” for £80.
“The hairdresser who did my daughter’s hair for prom said it’s a much bigger business than weddings now,” said one mother.
Orsett Hall has seen teenagers arrive in helicopters (£800+VAT), fire engines, Hummer limos and US-style big-rig trucks. Elsewhere, they’ve turned up for proms on mobility scooters, in a horse and carriage and a US police car.
“I’ve seen them for 15 years, so I’ve seen it all,” says Scott Carey, of the hotel’s events team. “We’ve had quite a few come back years later when they get married or to have their engagement parties, or birthday parties.”
Patsy Kane, executive headteacher of two girls’ schools in Manchester, has students whose families originate from many different parts of the world and the prom has become a celebration of diversity, reflected in the dresses and jewellery.
Tickets this year cost £27, but a student organising committee has been working for months on raising money through tombolas and cake sales to keep costs down. There are prizes for the best hair and the best dress, as well as the overall prom queen.
“The girls really go to town – they wear beautiful outfits. The hair’s beautiful, the makeup is beautiful, and they really enjoy making an effort. There aren’t any boys because we’re schools for girls, and every year someone says: ‘Can we invite boys?’
“And we don’t, because it’s a wonderful celebration of friendship. It’s very special. It goes beyond the commercial. I don’t think it’s a big thing how much your dress cost – that’s not something that gets asked.
“It’s just a wonderful, wonderful atmosphere. They’ve been together for five years. It’s hard for them to realise they are not going to see each other every day any more. They all say they’re going to keep in touch, but they won’t be able to. It’s the end of an era.”
Things have changed a bit since Chinery left school and joined the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. “There was no prom back in the day,” he says.
“We had it in the staff room – we had some biscuits, some crisps and some bottles of pop, and we sat round talking to the teachers. And that was it.”
This article was written by Sally Weale Education correspondent, for theguardian.com on Sunday 14th June 2015 15.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010