Ding dong morally on high

Roger Pope

Wendy the assistant principal has been hiding from me since half-term. When I appear at the end of the corridor, she slips into the nearest cleaner's cupboard. She sent apologies for the leadership team meeting because she had an urgent appointment with the vet for her budgie's ingrowing toenails. I finally found her hiding under my desk.

She was hoping that this year I might relent and delegate the job to someone else, but alas she does it so well; so once again Wendy is organising the carol service.

On the last day of term, as for many Christmases before, Year 7 will crocodile their way up to the church, to be followed after break by Year 8.

We are not a church school, and I am more Richard Dawkins than Rowan Williams.

The carols sound so awful the kids must stuff their mouths full of cotton wool before singing, and I can't say I blame them. No self-respecting 13-year-old wants to be seen singing "Lo, he abhors not the vir-er-gin's womb" in front of his mates.

So why do we keep on doing it?

It provides an opportunity to come together with a sense of ritual to create a sense of belonging. We have always felt a bit ambivalent about this in state schools, unlike public schools, which have always been very comfortable with rituals such as singing the school song in Latin or pushing matron's Morris Minor into the pond at the end of every term.

We often conflate ritual with conformity and tradition with being old-fashioned. Sports' Day has long gone because too many people have to sit around for too long while a few sporty types run up a track for 45 seconds.

Prizegiving? Too elitist. The annual harvest festival? Hardly relevant when food is picked fresh from McDonald's all year round.

So that leaves assemblies, of a secular nature, of course. I think we had assemblies every day in primary school. They were taken by the redoubtable Miss Cornish, who wore frighteningly tight skirts that made her stockings scratch as she walked out to the front.

I think that we had them every day in secondary school as well. I certainly remember the headmaster standing in his threadbare gown, glaring at us over the top of his half-rim spectacles.

I calculate I must have attended 2,470 assemblies during my school career. Even more amazing than that figure is the fact that I cannot remember a single thing about any of them. Not one.

Perhaps I have a poor memory. Perhaps I was always still hungover from the night before: possible in the 6th form, but unlikely in the infants, unless they used to lace the morning milk bottles to help keep us calm.

This ought to persuade me to send assemblies the same way as fagging, but still we carry on. There's an arrogance here that persuades me that my assemblies are more interesting than the ones I had to sit through, although I have to admit it's unlikely. Our persistence is for other reasons. It's partly to do with missionary zeal, the same motive that made Livingstone swim the crocodile-infested Limpopo in order to present presumably very soggy bibles to bemused natives.

We are grown-ups, and we have important moral messages for you youngsters, so sit up straight, stop poking your fingers in your neighbour's nostrils and listen. It's for your own good.

It's also about creating that sense of belonging. We live in the age of choice and personalised learning. If a student can negotiate when to come to school, and reject science with Mrs Witherspoon in period three in favour of studying surfboard design by podcast at three in the morning, then it is important that we hang on to occasions when we all come together.

We need to celebrate our achievements and remake the guidelines and borders that shape a community's sense of itself.

The medium is the message. I may have forgotten what old gown-face actually said in all those assemblies, but who knows what I inadvertently imbued through my pores about values, spirituality and all sorts of other cheesy stuff.

We know that a family meal together is now as rare as a fresh pea, and even gathering round the television has been superseded by watching my own computer in my own bedroom.

Humans these days spend too little time just being, and especially being quietly together with others.

So this year, as every year, we will traipse to the church for the carol service. I shall carry a clean tea towel in my pocket just in case the third shepherd is ill and my chance for stardom comes.

The kids would find it hilarious. But then, if laughter does not create community, what does? Happy Christmas.

Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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