Poems not proms: England’s schools give leavers send-off in Covid times

·4 min read

Headteacher Ben Davis bowed to the inevitable this week and wrote to all of his year-11 pupils and their families to inform them that the school prom – the now-fashionable highlight at the end of secondary school – had been postponed.

The hotel that was to have hosted the event contacted the school to say that in the light of the prime minister’s announcement on Monday that final Covid restrictions were to remain in place for another month, the prom could sadly no longer go ahead.

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The school prom is traditionally a big event at St Ambrose Barlow Roman Catholic high school in Wardley, Greater Manchester. Pupils spend months planning their outfits. With “freedom day” on the horizon, dresses were bought, suits hired and limos booked.

“I’ve been getting emails from parents asking, ‘What are we doing? Should I take the dress back, should I take the suit back? It’s a big, big deal,” said Davis. “This year it matters more than ever. If there was ever a year group that really, really deserved a prom, it’s this year.”

When the venue cancelled, staff looked into bringing the event on site, but the cost of renting marquees has gone through the roof thanks to the pandemic. Instead, the prom will be postponed until the start of the next academic year, Covid permitting.

It’s disappointing, says Davis, but with nearly 200 pupils self-isolating and some staff unable to come into work, it was looking increasingly unlikely. “At the end of the day, however much we would want to have a prom, the fact of the matter is that in Salford we have over 300 cases per 100,000. However sad it is, it’s not a responsible thing to do.”

Will Carr, the headteacher at Ralph Thoresby school in north Leeds, decided to keep it simple. Instead of the usual prom, which can be a big expense with £30 tickets and dresses costing up to £300, staff organised a leavers’ assembly in the school theatre followed by a barbecue, complete with ice-cream van, personalised cupcakes and a poem with a couplet dedicated to every student.

“There were a lot of emotions,” said Carr. “We’ve been through a lot together – positive cases, online learning, mass testing. In 27 years of teaching I can’t remember a time where the year 11s were so grateful and so appreciative. There are always tears, but this year they were not quite sure what to do, or what to make of it. It felt a lot more poignant.”

For some of Carr’s students, it was a relief not to have to do the big prom. “I remember the year 11s used to do a lot of fundraising for their proms. It would start in September,” said Katie Jackson, 16. “This year none of us were really expecting it. And because there were less expectations, you could be there in the moment, rather than worrying about your dress and what you look like.”

Primary schools are also saying goodbye to their year sixes. In many cases the traditional residential trip has had to be cancelled, end-of-year shows are being filmed to avoid large gatherings of parents and “graduation” ceremonies are being staggered to keep numbers down.

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Jamie Barry, the headteacher at Yew Tree primary school in Sandwell in the West Midlands, is determined his year-six children will get to wear their graduation gowns and caps without compromising on safety. They’ve already missed out on so much,” he says. “It’s a rite of passage. You can’t let that pass without any sense of occasion.”

Sarah White, at Coates Lane primary school in Barnoldswick, Lancashire, is one of a number of primary headteachers who have decided to buy every year-six leaver a copy of Marcus Rashford’s book, You Are a Champion. The England and Manchester United footballer achieved legendary status in schools across the country during lockdown for his free school meals campaign.

“In a normal year we would have an end-of-year play where the parents would come and watch, we would have a residential trip somewhere, we would make a massive thing of it with a leavers’ disco and a barbecue, but we’ve stripped it right back this year,” White said.

“I had seen Marcus’s book and I thought it would be an amazing present.” When she posted the idea on Twitter, Rashford responded: “Love this, best of luck Year 6. Remember, no one journey is the same, go out and make it your own.” His message will be glued into the front of every child’s book.

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