Being adult about assembly

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh pools the findings of his investigation into how to get the most out of collective worship

A couple of weeks ago we raised some discussion points about primary school assemblies (How do you handle assemblies? Primary forum, April 16). Did all the children attend, for example, were staff excused, how did the children move in and out, what about guest speakers?

Clearly we rang some bells. For example, David Howe, retired chief inspector for Warwickshire education authority, had some interesting memories including his claim to have been nearly banned from further attendance at one Warwickshire primary, where he spent a very happy book week assembly making reception children (who hadn't been in assembly before) laugh their socks off. That was fine, until later in the week when the vicar took assembly with more serious intent.

"It soon became evident that reception had decided that assembly was where a nice man tried to make you laugh. So why not be helpful and laugh uproariously at anything he said? Even when he explained who a vicar was and what he did."

Heads and teachers who wrote in were mostly generous about vicars, who are, after all, usually enthusiastic and pleasant.

"Sometimes they are excellent if they combine authority with easy rapport," writes Sandra Tew, a former RE specialist, now an adviser. And Yvonne Dalrymple, a head in Southampton, with the experience of two headships, believes in taking the initiative - "inviting the vicar into school, gleaning information from himher about the local area and giving the list of assembly details for the term. This has been the way into discussion and has always proved to be successful. The diocesan education departments often have good resources which the clergy can access."

It is hard to resist a good vicar story, though. Sandra Tew can't and wants to share the tale of a vicar who said: "What am I describing? It has a bushy tail, eats nuts and scampers up trees." (Yes, all you infant teachers are there already) "Jesus," was the reply.

The timing of assembly still provides food for thought. Yvonne Dalrymple sticks to first thing in the morning. She says: "It allows for latecomers and it seems to wake the children and prepare them for learning." (I hope she forgives me if I suggest that her excellent email makes me feel that in her presence everyone definitely stays awake.) Daryl Long, a head in Norfolk, likes the early slot, tried to stick to it but was persuaded out of it.

"Our adviser pointed out that by the time the children had sat for register, sat for assembly then sat for the start of the literacy session they had been on their bottoms a long time (we are an infant school). We accepted this as a valid point and have assemblies just before playtime. I don't personally like it but I guess it addresses the issue."

Primary school assembly, in fact, often turns out to be governed by a series of compromises. On coming in and going out quietly, for example, the general feeling is that although you can keep things calm, it is not easy and may be not appropriate to achieve total silence.

"It is impossible to expect complete silence from children," writes Yvonne Dalrymple. She adds the telling comment: "I do expect silence from the adults."

She is so right about that. How many assembly leaders seethe inwardly when they see colleagues laughing and gossiping through the settling down moments at the start?

Then there is the question of whether all the staff should be there all the time. The usual arrangement, it seems, is to have everyone in at least once during the week.

"This is a time to set the tone for the week as well as the day," writes Yvonne Dalrymple.

For Sandra Tew, though, there is a values issue here that brooks no compromise - children should not get the message that for their teachers assembly is either a duty or an optional extra. "Attendance by other staff is crucial. Absolutely vital," she writes.

(Correspondents point out that staff often share in taking the assembly too - though there is rarely any pressure, and it is clear that the head usually does more assemblies than anyone else.) Sandra Tew also feels strongly about having all the pupils there.

"Attendance by all children should be the norm, unless parents have exercised their right of withdrawal."

Yvonne Dalrymple agrees, apart from "rare occasions when individual learning plans (for special needs pupils) need to be checked".

(It's worth mentioning here that the primary governing body which I chair was closely questioned by our last inspection team on the issue of keeping children out of assembly. The feeling was that rare absences, like those described by Yvonne Dalrymple, would be OK, but regular systematic withdrawal would not.) The really heartening message, though, is that primary assembly is alive and well for reasons that have nothing at all to do with statutory obligations and everything to do with building and reinforcing community values. As Yvonne Dalrymple writes: "I see assembly as vital to the well-being of everyone in a school."

There are overt moral messages, certainly, but there are implicit ones too - in assembly the head is saying to colleagues (and this is why they need to be there): "This is how we talk to children here. This is how we ask questions. These are the things we deem important. These are the values and beliefs that support us."

Gerald Haigh was guest editor of Primary forum on April 16

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