The school prom: Rite of passage or ridiculous American import?

Prom celebrates superficiality and outdated stereotypes, says this teacher, but could there be something worthwhile in it too?

Stephanie Keenan

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The nearest I ever got to a prom in my teens was the hazy fantasy of American high school films. Grease; Mean Girls; Back to the Future. They all had a prom, and I loved watching them, imagining in great detail what my American alter-ego would wear and who my date would be.

Unfortunately, prom just wasn’t British. At my girls’ school there was no such thing and I remained blissfully unaware of the prom-mania that was slowly sweeping the UK until I joined the teaching profession.

Back then, my first reaction to my students’ passion for prom was stiff-upper-lip outrage. ‘What is this ridiculous American import that bears no relation to the values of the British school system?’ I thought, forgetting my own teenage fascination with the phenomenon.

Waste of money?

Prom imports all the worst aspects of American high school culture. It celebrates superficiality, cliques and cool kids, encouraging a shallow focus on appearance, while also reinforcing outdated stereotypes through gender-prescriptive awards like prom king and queen.

Parents waste hundreds of pounds they can ill-afford on hair, suits, dresses, make-up and even limos: piles of cash that might be better saved to help pay for further or higher education are splashed so that students can enjoy one fake-tanned, sore-footed dance around a dribbling chocolate fountain.

Is this the best we can offer as the culmination of five years of student life at secondary school? Surely we should be celebrating academic progress and achievement, not who can afford the most expensive dress.

Meanwhile, for teachers, prom becomes yet another "fun" event that we have to attend in our free time, unpaid. We can’t relax and enjoy it; all we can do is stand at the sides like robots, avoiding hugs, photos or dancing due to child protection and social media paranoia.

Commemorating friendships

And yet, when I actually attended my first prom, I was filled with tearful pride as the students arrived in their glad-rags, nervous and excited, leaning on each other’s arms and holding one another’s dresses out of the puddles.

The formality of the event led to formality of behaviour and they all conducted themselves gracefully and graciously.

Prom was their opportunity for a formal rite of passage. Yes, it was a chance to dress up; but it was also so much more than that. It was a chance for everyone to celebrate, not just those who had achieved academically.

For one night, the students came together to commemorate the friendships, larks and bants that make up secondary school. Whether they were marking the end of their education or moving on to further study, this was a reminder that school is about more than just lessons and exams. And watching them enjoy the evening, I finally remembered why I loved the prom scenes in all those American movies.

Since attending that first prom, I haven’t missed a single one.

This year, I picked out my prom dress in the January sales. I can’t wait to go and see all my students dressed up in their finery, celebrating their achievements and marking the passage to a hopefully bright future.

Prom may have started life as a tacky American import, but it can be done in style. I'm officially a convert.  

Stephanie Keenan is curriculum leader for English and literacy at Ruislip High School in London. She blogs at and tweets @stephanootis.

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Stephanie Keenan

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