An ode to the whole-school assembly

Assemblies anchor the school day by bringing everyone together – they must not be lost, writes Emma Turner

Emma Turner

Whole-school assemblies bring everyone together and cement the school ethos, argues Emma Turner

When anyone asks me what I miss most about headship, my answer usually surprises them. I think they expect me to say something along the lines of being able to shape education or implement a vision. But, actually, what I miss – and often pine for – is something far less grand.

I miss assemblies.

I miss the quiet flurry of activity that precedes them. The Year 6s bustle into a silent, empty hall tasked with the rolling out of the projector and wrestling with the pull-down screen. Then the doors open and the once-slumbering hall, with its dust motes and gently peeling displays, is awakened by the shuffle of hundreds of tiny feet marching in unison, accompanied by a gentle yet constant shushing.

The youngest meander in, a bumping snake of half waves to older siblings and whispered pointing, their teachers instructing them to shuffle forward, shuffle forward, no not that far, back a bit. The eldest scuff their way in, flicking fringes, reluctantly removing hands from pockets and half smirking at a pre-hall joke while their teacher, usually clutching a list or pile of books, shoots them a reminding look and nods towards the front. 

The staff flank the children in rows down the sides of the hall: some are scanning lists or hastily signing certificates, some are dashing to their seat after a stolen toilet break. Some try to snatch a conversation with a colleague, fingers pointing generally towards the seated rows; one rises from their seat to make a sudden necessary trip to the office.

The soaring notes of that week’s assembly music echo through the hall – some weeks it’s a piece of challenging classical music, others a pop song guaranteed to ensure much miming, wriggling and twisting of heads and raising of eyebrows at that week’s choice.

Whatever the content of the assembly, there is the prerequisite overly jolly "good morning!" from the assembly lead and the statutory monotone and elongated return address of "goooood mooor-niiing".

School assembly: laughter, pride and shared jokes

Assemblies are the anchor of the school day. Whatever fun, chaos, cognitive process or stern mood has preceded the walk into the hall, when the pupils are inside, they're a collective. 

It’s a moment to be elsewhere, to reset. To recognise your part in something bigger, something greater, something more than the sum of its parts.

To hear of assemblies hijacked for "flattening the grass"-style behaviour rollouts is heartbreaking. To shout, to dominate and to use that time for anything other than forging a sense of aspiration, celebration and belonging for all desecrates the true purpose and potential of the school assembly.

Over the years I have watched with pride as nervous children thumbed scraps of paper and read at the front, words trembling from their mouths. These moments were always followed by a proud beam of achievement.

I have seen young musicians make their first faltering debuts, seen passionate young campaigners share their causes with breathtaking clarity, and seen the next generation of sporting heroes articulate their losses and celebrate their wins.

I’ve seen children proudly share their rich cultures and heritage and seen how newcomers to the school have been welcomed into the family by the power of an assembly.

The assembly is the ceremonial representation of the vision and values of your school. It provides a vehicle to develop the all-important synchronicity between words, actions and deeds, and to revisit and make real your approach to all aspects of school life.

It is important to remember that in this world of trimmed timetables and time pressures, the impact on wellbeing and culture of the daily assembly should not be underrated. Because when the daily assembly becomes a mere memory, you truly do miss it.

I miss the little sidelong glances to each other from bowed heads. I miss the reminders from the teachers that we are not in a hairdresser's when some impromptu plaiting occurs. I miss seeing the whole range of child development when a question is asked to the masses: from the youngest with their unselfconscious and often obscure answers, to the eldest with their faux reluctant but secretly proud contributions.

When I think of assemblies, I think of laughter, pride and shared jokes. I think of rapturous applause for the achievements of others and the sharing of the community’s learning and accomplishments.

Assemblies are where bonds are made and where the school family ties are cemented. They are spaces to think, to shape and to enjoy. And as the children rise – stiff-jointed and pink-cheeked – you can feel the shift in the collective temperature.

The warmth of an assembly in school can sustain a glow for the entire day.

Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Trust, Leicestershire

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