Mike Beale talks to Victoria Neumark.
The best Christmas assembly I've taken was on the theme of the gift. It was for the junior school in 1994. We got one Year 3 class of seven and eight-year-olds to be the three kings. They had a week to prepare their gifts for the baby Jesus. Three of them even went with a teaching assistant to the shops to buy presents: they took Pounds 10 from the school fund and bought a baby bottle in a presentation set and some cuddly toys. The rest of the class used the week to make cards and bring in baby clothes and toys from home. Being the three kings, they had time and money and resources to make sumptuous gifts.
Then, an hour before the assembly started, we told a Year 5 class of 10-year-olds that they were the shepherds. They just had a short time to prepare something - they made cards and mobiles from old bits of egg-boxes and bottle tops. But they could also perform a dance, so they made up a lullaby to a xylophone tune. They had to make spontaneous gifts.
Then I talked to the children about the Christmas story. I'm a humanist myself, but I think it's important that the children know that Christmas is about more than pantomime and presents: it's amazing how many children in an area which is almost exclusively white and (presumably) nominally Christian, just don't know the Christmas story, which figures so large in our culture. So I told them the story about Jesus being born. I talked about caring and sharing, and about how giving is about more than material things. Even if you haven't got much, there are always gifts of friendship to share.
We try to involve the children in all our assemblies. Every day we hold separate assemblies for infant and junior children. We begin with reflection. They come in quietly with something to look at that is calming, often one of a selection of videos (I got them from a Christian organisation, in fact) which show natural scenes. We play music: for the Christmas assembly it was the song "All the Gifts". When it is time for the main part of the assembly one of the children lights a candle. Others choose and announce the songs. At the end, they leave quietly.
When we devised our policy on assemblies and acts of worship, the staff and governing body decided that a good act of worship is short. There is a danger that you can go on for a long time and not make so much of an impact as you would in 10 minutes. In this case, the children had thought about the subject and the assembly acknowledged their involvement.
Mike Beale is head of Holland Moor Primary School, Skelmersdale.