Tags: Assemblies | Assistant Head | Citizenship and PSHE | Deputy Head | Headteacher | Learning Communities | PSHE & Citizenship Coordinator | School Leadership & Management

In recent years assembly has been squeezed by the pressures of the curriculum but its importance in demonstrating what your school stands for should not be under-estimated, says former headteacher Gerald Haigh.

Sometimes it doesn’t do to think too hard about why we do things in school. Remember the ‘sabre-tooth curriculum’? (I’ll tell you at the end if you’ve forgotten.) I have to say, though, that I’m perfectly clear about the core purpose of assembly. It is an opportunity to bring to life – to articulate and demonstrate – the core values of the school community.

You see, it’s one thing to write mission statements that say things about ‘…creating and maintaining an orderly, trusting, and caring environment where teaching and learning are exciting.’ (That’s a real one by the way.) Or, ‘That our pupils develop a love of learning, both individually and with others, and acquire a wide range of learning skills.’ (That’s another.) It’s quite another for the leadership, for whom these aren’t, presumably, just slogans but passionate commitments, to put some emotional flesh on them. And it’s here that assembly comes into its own.

At its most basic level, assembly provides its leader (often, though by no means always, the headteacher) with the opportunity to demonstrate straight away, right from the start that: ‘This is how I speak to children. This is my tone of voice. This is the body language I use. These are the facial expressions I use in engaging with them.’

The message is for the children, certainly, but it’s also, very importantly, for staff, parents and visitors. (Which is why all staff should attend. In my experience Ofsted believe that they should all be there, by the way.)

A reinforcement of values

Right from the start, assembly tells the world what you and your school stand for. You want ‘orderly and trusting’? Then you’ll see to it that the children file in quietly but not fearfully, relaxed and ready to listen. You’ll make eye contact, smiling at individuals and getting one in return. You’ll greet them quietly, with a smile. You might even break the ice with a personal exchange. ‘You’re looking cheerful today Robbie. Have you won the lottery?’

What else? Well, maybe you tell a story that highlights something that you value in school – readiness to help, inclusion, concern for the environment, or courage in adversity. Then, perhaps, you’ll do something that reinforces the qualities you stand for. For me it was the five-metre swimming certificates.  Swimming was one of our things – the leisure centre was nearby and we had good support from the local club. Although we paid tribute to the ones who swam hundreds of metres, we really went to town on those who managed five metres for the first time. We wanted those beginner swimmers to experience the importance of a first step, and we wanted the others – the good swimmers and the experts – to relive what it felt like to be a novice.

Most importantly, we wanted children who had already achieved to learn how to appreciate and take delight in the achievements of others. To demonstrate this with the clarity that’s possible in assembly is so much more effective than just telling children not to be selfish.

Putting the message across

There are so many ways of putting a message across without being too didactic or preachy. Here are a few of them:

Stories: The best source, of course, is my own Primary Assembly File from the same publishing stable as this magazine (for more information go to www.pfp-publishing.com). Aside from that, the watchwords are simplicity, brevity, variety of tone and close focus on the point you’re making.

Visitors: Keep an eye on the local paper for people you think would be good role models for your children to meet. Phone them, or write. They’re usually very generous with their time. Among the most memorable for me was Edie Atkins, who back in 1953 had set the amateur women’s Land’s End to John O’Groats cycling record (two days, 18 hours and four minutes.) She came on her bike of course. At 70-odd she was the living embodiment of all we wanted to say to children about determination, ambition, to say nothing of age and gender stereotyping.

Recognising out-of-school clubs: Some schools have an annual assembly to pay tribute to all those who work with our children out of school – scout movement leaders, dance teachers, youth workers, junior sports club organisers and so on. The children invite them, and introduce them. Parents come too. The adults love it, and often you see children in a different light. It says, in a very real way: ‘We know we aren’t the only ones who care about our children. We appreciate all that you do – and recognise the fact that so many of you are volunteers.’

Giving awards: I’ve mentioned swimming certificates. But give awards prolifically, always for actions that reflect your values – unselfishness, care for others, generosity of spirit. Don’t forget quirky ones, though – an air freshener for the owner of the grottiest trainers. That, too, says something about the place of irreverence and humour in your community.

 Instant drama: Call children to the front and help them to role-play tricky moments – playground encounters, ‘it’s not fair’ classroom incidents etc – with pauses for discussion. Again, it’s so much better than just finger-wagging. You soon get to know which children are good at this.

Curriculum pressures

It all takes time of course, and one of the depressing things that’s happened to assembly in recent years is that it’s been squeezed by the pressures of the curriculum. You can see why it happens, but to see assembly as an optional extra, to run it to a restrictive timetable, or to excuse staff from attending, is to underestimate its importance.

One final thought. One of the most memorable assemblies I’ve attended was held in bright morning sunshine on the playground of a 750-pupil elementary school in Las Vegas. With the aid of music and words from the pupils, a warm welcome for myself, and a relaxed and friendly talk from the principal, it clearly demonstrated to me, even before I’d seen inside the building, everything that she and her staff stood for. And, of course, in line with US law, it had no religious content.

And the ‘sabre-tooth curriculum’? Briefly it’s a fable, from 1939 by JA Peddiwell, about a tribe who taught the techniques of killing sabre-tooth tigers. The tigers died out, but, of course, the system continued to teach the techniques because it always had. They just dug up other reasons for doing it – the general development of courage, for example. The parallels with the curriculum of any western nation were painfully evident then – and remain so today.

This article first appeared in Primary Headship – Dec 2006

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