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Save the last dance - should parents be hiring a date for their child's school formal?

Opinion

With schools hopefully returning to some form of normality in the coming weeks, no doubt the spotlight will soon fall on that night of nights – the high school formal. But should it be such a major date on the senior school calendar, asks Madonna King

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With online schooling soon to resume, the talk among Queensland’s senior students will soon focus on that centre-piece social function, the school formal.

Make-up and hair that requires a small fortune. Pre-parties and post-parties. Some schools are even providing a half-day to allow children to make sure everything’s perfect for those five hours, one night this year.

Dresses routinely cost between $40 and $1900. Some schools require a photo of the dress, in case it doesn’t match the ‘values’ of the school. Those breaking it are told they’ll be turned away, or have to wear a jumper, issued at the door, as a cover up.

Hard and fast rules envelop fake tans and nails in the days leading up to this senior night of nights, which grows bigger and bigger each year.

A couple of schools have even tried a novelty approach – asking seniors to make their dress out of old fabric or a garbage bag, to reduce the anxiety, pressure and comparison that surrounds this calendar night.

And partners. That is often the tricky point for schools. Can the partner be the same sex? Can they be in their 20s? Are they allowed to drink at a pre-function (when most schools have breathalysers at the ready)?

It was the issue of partners that prompted one Brisbane mother to seek help online recently. Her daughter goes to a Brisbane all-girls’ school, and she posted a request on another school’s site – that of top boys’ school, Brisbane Grammar School

“Looking to pay for another boy as a date to her grade 12 formal this year,’’ she wrote. “In return, we are seeking the favour to be invited back to BGS formal as your son’date (sic). If you are interested, please feel free to contact me. Thanks for your time.’’

When questioned by website readers as to why she had focused on BGS, this mother said she’d be open to a partner from BBC or other private schools.

“This is a most unusual request,’’ another parent wrote. “Why would money need to change hands for someone to accompany a child to their formal?’’

“We have to pay $150 to the school to bring the partner,’’ came the reply.

Yes, that’s another expense. Up to $300 for two school students to attend a night of dance in a dress that should be framed. (I’m sorry, I digress).

“If your daughter isn’t friends with any guys then either don’t take a date or have her invite another friend,’’ another mother offered. “There’s really no point taking a date you don’t know and having photos with a random.’’

Oh, yes, the photos. Frequently, a group of parents will pool money and pay up to $1500 to have a private photographer at pre-parties, to capture that magic moment.

“Having a stranger sit next to your daughter at fa ormal can be worse than going alone,’’ one mother advised the partner-seeker. “Tell her she can hold her head up with or without a partner and enjoy time with friends. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on (her). Enjoy the moment. Kids can be cruel, if her friends or other girls find out she got a date this way, it could be nasty.’’

Others suggested she delete the post, and it has now been removed.

But that simple request shows how this one night, particularly in private schools, has become way too big.

Too much money. Too much focus. Too much pressure. Too much competition. This mother was simply trying to assist her daughter access a partner, in an upfront way.

And she’s not the only one. One girl recently found out, through friends, that her parents had ‘chosen and asked’ a boy to attend her formal with her – without her knowledge. “I was humiliated,’’ she says.

Another found out after her parents had lodged the formal acceptance with payment for their daughter to attend her school formal. They had provided – again, without her knowledge – the name of her escort.

What are the lessons here? A formal shouldn’t cost the same as a wedding? That parents and schools need to reduce the brouhaha around the senior formal? That this is another stunning area of difference between our public and private schools? That COVID has put a renewed focus on that one event that might be delayed and delayed, but not cancelled?

In a year that promises to be riddled with uncertainties, the school formal is a tangible night of enjoyment for our sons and daughters – in the same way we might have had dancing lessons for the night of our ‘debut’ in the 1980s and 1990s.

But could it be time to consider limits on the fanfare around the school formal – not unlike the limits placed on the size of the split in some of the $1000 dresses on show?

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