Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Primary proms and classroom homophobia

From today's Education Guardian:

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. As they step out of the stretch limos and Humvees their parents have hired, it is obvious that they are ready to leave school...

But these kids are leaving primary school - and their average age is 11. Apparently, the pre-teen prom is becoming an inescapable rite of passage across the UK. The article goes on: 'Boys in kilts and girls in diamante evening gowns are already dancing to the music of time north of the border, where term ends a month earlier than in England.'

The popularity among pre-teens of US movies, such as the ubiquitous High School Musical, seems to be partly to blame. But I think it's also a symptom of the increasing emotionalisation of everyday life (other signs include roadside shrines, crowds weeping at funerals of dead royals). One Scottish parent quoted in the piece says 'I am not sure where the hysteria starts, but when it does it spreads very easily and it is difficult to stop.' 

I can tell you where the hysteria started at our children's primary school: with the teachers. At the end of every year, they set up the Year 6 leavers' assembly so that it would turn into an inevitable weep-fest. Teachers, themselves often dabbing their eyes, gave emotional speeches about 'the best class I've ever taught', and the event wasn't considered a success if it didn't end with gaggles of girls in floods of tears. To watching parents, it often seemed as though it was the staff's separation anxieties, and not the children's, that were being dramatised, and imposing them on impressionable 11 year olds often felt like a form of mild emotional abuse.

I don't want to turn this post into a bout of teacher-bashing, but there's another good piece in the education supplement about combating homophobia in schools. There are some excellent ideas to help teachers deal with issues of sexuality in the classroom, but the assumption throughout is that prejudice against gays and lesbians is part of 'playground culture'. No reference is made to the fact that teachers might themselves exhibit signs of homophobia towards their pupils, and how this might be dealt with. Again, at my son's secondary school (and here's where blogger anonymity comes in useful), the only reports we've heard of homophobic language have been about a teacher who makes repeated remarks about what he perceives to be the effeminacy of certain boys' appearance and behaviour. This is something that was rife at my boys' grammar school in the '60s and early '70s (when even our left-leaning Liverpudlian politics teacher had a habit of referring to a particular pupil as a 'big girl's blouse'), but I had kind of hoped those days were over.

One more item to recommend in the Education Guardian: an interview with one of my favourite historians, Mark Mazower, which oddly omits to mention his bestselling book Salonica, City of Ghosts, which I wrote about here.

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