Assemblies are more than worth the hassle

23rd August 2013 at 01:00
They come low on busy teachers' priority lists, but are a brilliant way of strengthening community ties and broadening horizons

It may sound unlikely, but I truly believe that one of the nicest things about teaching is the sharing of good practice among colleagues. We do this all the time; almost every aspect of our jobs is discussed at length and in detail on a seemingly daily basis. Interestingly, however, one aspect of the school experience that seems to go almost completely under the radar is the assembly. Although I have had incalculably high numbers of discussions on independent learning, behaviour management, assessment and almost everything else, I must confess I do not recall a single conversation about the importance of school assemblies or how to do one well.

For some teachers, I suspect that there is an element of ambivalence when thinking about the very concept of a school assembly. For many in the UK, the religious aspect causes some concern: all state schools in England must provide a daily act of collective worship that has to reflect the broadly Christian traditions of the country. I know few schools that pay this rule much attention - and a good thing, too. The very idea of the state legally enforcing religious worship for children belongs in the Dark Ages.

In addition, some left-leaning teachers out there share the fears of Marxist sociologists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis that assemblies and other authoritarian aspects of schooling form part of a "hidden curriculum" designed to produce docile workers for the capitalist machine.

For some staff, the horrifying idea of having to deliver an assembly themselves is the root cause of their ambivalence. But for most teachers, I think, it is simply a question of priorities. Compared with lesson planning and delivery, marking coursework, liaising with parents and all the other daily expectations of a busy job, the assembly period is just not particularly high on the agenda.

In fact, many see it as a bit of a chore. Teachers must get the children all lined up, check uniforms, encourage them to sit down in the right place and worst of all make them shut up - and for what? To hear the deliverer read out something he printed off from some awful online collection of last-minute assembly ideas on the way down from the staffroom. It just doesn't seem worth the hassle.

But it is. And not only do I think assembly is worth the hassle, I also believe it to be one of the most important aspects of the school day for a number of reasons.

Challenging perspectives

First, assembly is a chance to raise contemporary issues that affect the world, and in a way that can rarely be achieved in a lesson. Broadening horizons is one of the most fundamental goals of a good education, and few things allow us to do this better than a really well-delivered assembly. They are great for offering challenging perspectives and raising the bar in terms of intellectual discussion. Those who regularly treat the delivery of assembly as an add-on or inconvenience are more often than not senior members of staff who berate their subordinates for sloppy lesson planning, and yet they are just as guilty of wasting valuable learning time.

Second, assembly allows the school to get together as a whole community - in good and bad times. Celebrating the achievements of our finest students should be done publicly and in grand fashion, to encourage their contemporaries to try harder and to inspire younger students to emulate their seniors. The idea of holding up the best in our community for public reward is essential in any society that aspires to be meritocratic. Assembly is a great place to showcase the great writers, artists, musicians and orators of the school - something we do not do nearly enough of. It is also a necessary focal point in bad times; if anyone connected with the school is struck by misfortune or tragedy, it is vital to gather together and show solidarity.

Third, the act of the assembly helps young people to become familiar with formality. Knowing how to behave during formal events is an important life skill. Go to any posh private school and you will find the school day resplendent with opportunities to practise such skills, yet for some reason this is not seen as important by many state schools. Learning how to behave in different social environments does not happen by accident; it requires socialisation. It should be no surprise to us that students from privileged backgrounds perform better in interviews for university places and jobs, given that they are much more likely to have been regularly exposed to formal occasions. If we want to instil some cultural capital into disadvantaged children, we could do worse than increase the frequency of assemblies and other formal occasions.

For all these reasons, and many more, the school assembly matters. It is hard work to organise and takes careful planning to do well. It requires high expectations of behaviour. It also requires skilled delivery and staff with the necessary charisma and ability to hold the attention of a large group of young people. Most of all, it requires putting time and thought into what message you are going to deliver. But it is worth the trouble for all the reasons I have outlined. As always, if something is worth doing, it is worth doing properly.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, England.

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