Andy Mattison

Someone needs to do some serious research into the causes and consequences of school assemblies (by which I mean the whole school, or multi-class sections of it, meeting together). My own memory is in this respect almost entirely blank. The sole recollection I have from primary school is of waiting to call for three cheers for the teachers (must have been at Christmas or the end of the school year), agonising about the best moment to do so, and being gazumped by a much less hesitant – and perfectly wellmeaning – younger boy.

Tellingly, he got told off. Think about it. He was told off for saying thank you to the teachers … Probably he was told that if he was allowed to get away with it, before you know it there’d be no way to do any constructive business in schools because of constant interruptions to say thank-you. But I’m sure he went far.

Anyway, that’s it, no other memories. Likewise in secondary school, all I can remember is one great occasion when I was in the sixth form and there was a co-ordinated collapse – two or three rows of us fell to the floor like dominoes. I was an enthusiastic participant but wouldn’t have had the nerve to initiate it and I can’t remember the context. It was very funny, though, unlike any other assembly I ever attended as a child.

Over the twelve years of my own schooling, I must have attended getting on for two thousand assemblies. That’s not a brilliant return in terms of memorable education, especially since my two memories don’t actually relate to the content at all. I think in practice assemblies are loved by teachers in general, as long as they don’t have to attend or – much worse – lead them, because assemblies give them some much-needed time to prepare resources, tidy up, go to the loo, etc.

The assembly finds its place in the curriculum as deliverer of the legally-required daily act of worship, and facilitator of homilies – literally, if like me you went to a church school – and depositions on moral themes, especially those relating to obeying school rules and the dire consequences of failing to do so. This engenders a seamless organisational link with the lining-up question discussed in my last article. This is how to do it:

  • Make a stupid rule
  • Watch it not working
  • Feel justified in spending lots of time getting the kids together to nag them about it and berate them for their woeful refusal to comply. (Of course, most are already complying and it’s therefore a double waste of their time, but that’s the price you have to pay for being in a large institution.)

A further confluence with the lining-up issue results from the fact that taking part in an event where quite a large number of children have to come together in one room offers a marvellous opportunity to practise walking and sitting in scrupulously straight lines – and with the added indoor bonus of doing so in silence. (To return to the Staff Room analogy, I’d pay good money to watch teachers being told to come in to a staff meeting in neat lines in their year groups and sit in silence until the arrival of the Headteacher.)

Sadly, kids just don’t seem to be appreciating assemblies any more than I did. Anecdotal evidence from my own children and their friends is not good, although at Willam Booth we did try hard to make them interesting and enjoyable.

Our approach at WB was to abolish daily assemblies altogether. (Interestingly, Ofsted never made an issue of this, or asked about the ‘act of worship.’) We tried various formulas for voluntary assemblies or meetings, with limited success, and ended up with a whole-school ‘Family Assembly’ every week, to which parents were also invited. There we celebrated the week’s birthdays and any other significant events. We sang songs and I told appalling jokes, usually greeted with boos, but we also sent our love and thoughts to people suffering illness, poverty and natural disasters. Classes just came in and sat in their accustomed positions (crowded into our small hall) and talked until we were ready to start. If they didn’t seem ready to be quiet, I’d just start singing and hope like mad that everyone would join in. And luckily they did. At the end, we’d normally let the smallest kids out first, and then everyone would just mill out together. It wasn’t perfect but there was often a wonderful sense of the school being together as a caring, learning community, reflecting, celebrating and having fun. Apparently, even under-7s can leave a room together without needing army-style regimentation. Hold the front page.




#1 Geraldine Rowe 2017-08-01 06:31
I love this article. I suggested to a couple of teachers that there was an alternative to lining up. When they were aghast at the idea I asked them how this roomful of adults who had not been to this venue previously had managed to enter the meeting room on time and find a place without lining up. They started to 'hum and ha' a bit then. I'm going to keep asking this question, thanks to your prompt.

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