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What time’s assembly? by John Dabell

‘The Marmite Gene Project’ found that people are born biologically more likely to be either lovers or haters of Marmite.

I have no scientific proof but I’d say the same goes for teachers and assemblies.

Some love ‘doing’ an assembly and some definitely swerve the rota and will always find something else to do when it’s their turn.

For me, leading an assembly is definitely one of the perks of being a teacher. Where else are you going to get a captive audience of hundreds that hang on your every word?! They are a powerful part of school life and taking one is a privilege.

Assemblies can fill some teachers with dread and fear because these are normally whole-school get-togethers where all eyes on you and there is nowhere to hide!

Performing in front of your colleagues isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but they are something you can grow to like and get better at the more you do.

But avoiding them is not an option as every member of the school staff, pupils and occasional visitors will be involved in leading an assembly at some point in the school year.

Assemblies are golden opportunities to meet as a school community and should be the fabric of school life to promote spiritual, moral and cultural development and reinforce the school’s values. They are a valuable and valued experience for all members of a school community whatever their backgrounds and beliefs.

Assemble and Worship

Collective worship is distinct from assembly which can be a gathering for a wide variety of reasons.

The majority of schools in the UK are required by law to organise acts of collective worship (England, Northern Ireland, Wales) or religious observance (Scotland) for their pupils.

The majority of such acts during any school term must be of a ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ and should be concerned with ‘reverence or veneration paid to a divine being or power’.

But is there a place for ‘collective worship’ or ‘religious observance’ in schools?

There can be a cross-over between the two and assembly activities can legitimately be called worship e.g.

  • responding to a challenge and sharing each other’s joys
  • reflection on the meaning of life
  • pondering big ‘ultimate’ questions
  • developing a sense of transcendence
  • exploring universal values such as courage, compassion, justice and peace
  • exploring universal experiences such as awe, mystery, transience, suffering, grief, forgiveness, love and joy
  • learning about the insights, beliefs, and practices of fellow pupils, staff and members of the wider community

Collective worship and assemblies are a meeting of differences where a variety of faiths, different cultures, different ages and different backgrounds gather together.

But collective worship is a real can of worms and some have said that it actually puts children off from worship because it “is not done particularly well”.

In 2015, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) published a report, Collective

Worship and Religious Observance in Schools: An Evaluation of Law and Policy in the UK which  stated:

 

“The statutory duty to provide an act of collective worship/religious observance in schools has been

controversial for decades. Issues include: disagreement about the appropriateness of such acts in an

increasingly pluralistic, multicultural UK; the degree to which the current system properly affords

respect for the rights of individuals and minority groups, including those with no religious faith; and

concerns that the present arrangements do not adequately develop the spiritual/moral education of

pupils, or promote a community spirit and shared values in schools.”

 

The reality in our schools is that there is a high level of non-compliance with the law and there is almost a total lack of any attempt to enforce it.

This is why many argue that collective worship, in a plural and fair-minded society, gives way to a requirement to hold inclusive assemblies as these can genuinely contribute to the social and moral development of children and power mutual understanding between children of different religions and beliefs.

The AHRC report recommends removing the requirement that acts of collective worship be of a broadly Christian character and advises replacing the duty with a duty for a ‘time for reflection’.

Reflective assemblies do this and are more inclusive because they allow schools to address a whole range of topics, including faith and belief.

They can allow children and staff to:

  • engage in an act of community
  • express praise and thanksgiving to each other
  • be still and reflective
  • respond to personal, local, national and international news
  • foster respect and deepen awareness of the school’s ethos
  • explore citizenship, human rights and British values
  • share each other’s experiences and talents
  • celebrate special times in the calendar and national days

Assemblies then are an important part of building a strong school community as they are a powerful opportunity for children, staff, parents and visitors to learn, celebrate and share together and to establish a shared sense of identity.

They benefit the whole school, they link the school to their wider community, contribute to personal development and enhance awareness of global citizenship.

Assemblies That Shine

Leading an assembly is a skill and they need careful planning. Although experienced colleagues might be able to take an assembly at just a few minutes notice, these aren’t events that you can just turn up at and ad lib like a comedian.

Assemblies can easily fall flat on their faces without preparation and turn an engaged and respectful audience into an awkward and uncomfortable one.

The content of all assemblies needs to be considered carefully to ensure relevance and suitability for the ages, aptitudes and backgrounds of all pupils, as well as the balance between faiths.

Merely meeting together to share announcements and notices is a missed opportunity because assemblies are a time to educate, reflect and grow as a school.

A variety of styles, active and interactive methods and a range of resources also need to be used in assemblies so that they never become predictable, routine and tedious.

For me, I think all assemblies have to shine and to help me plan I use the SHINE acronym. Assemblies have to be:

  1. Social – this is a collective experience that needs to speak to everyone for it to be truly inclusive and so selecting a topic that doesn’t alienate anyone is essential.
  2. Hued – there are plenty of vanilla flavoured assemblies out there which are great if you like vanilla. But vanilla every time is boring so assemblies have to be colourful, vibrant and diverse.
  3. Interrelated – assemblies are the perfect opportunity to make connections across the curriculum and to join thinking and experiences together so that children appreciate links and start searching for them independently.
  4. New – assemblies have to be challenging and provoke thinking so that children can develop resilience, empathy, positivity and creativity. Assemblies can help build capacity for new skills and so every assembly needs to deliver a new experience.
  5. Energetic – assemblies don’t have to be all singing and all dancing but they do need 100% passion and energy so that drive and verve inspires children. Children have to leave an assembly with something to think about, something that has stirred them and something they will talk about at home.

The most important aspect of an assembly is the concept of wholeness so that everyone in the school feels valued, cared for and respected.

Assemblies that shine create the conditions for positive connections to be made where children enjoy being part of a supportive school family. They also contribute to developing children’s personal autonomy, contentment and emotional wellbeing.

It’s a real honour to take an assembly because as teachers we have the potential to really make them special and memorable and contribute to the overall health of the school community.