When we bring our bodies together

10th August 2001 at 01:00
Vicki Johnson gets all steamed up over the joys of assembly

At any gathering of heads of a certain age, the conversation regularly drifts towards the collective act, an unfortunate term that has a whiff of perversion about it.

I remember the disturbing mixture of boredom and terror that was the ethos of my own school assemblies. The fear of one's sins finding one out. The text from St Paul's "whatsoever is of good report" was repeated at each end-of-year gathering as my headteacher (ex-Roedean with a fixed, upper-class jaw), stared directly at me, conveying in her gaze that my report would be anything but good. You breathed, moved or blinked at your peril.

As a raw recruit, I realised things hadn't improved. The early Seventies found me cowering with my reception class as the head physically clamped four-year-old hands together in "prayer", and snarled through a grimace:

"Dear Father God" (pause for response - nothing but a whimper). "I SAID, DEAR FATHER GOD". Collapse of all four-year-olds. There would be a song, the odd message, and, always, a telling-off.

As the Seventies progressed, we had politically correct "themes" that ensured no one was offended and nothing much learnt. "Hands" cropped up a lot. "Children, our hands are very useful aren't they? Think of all the things we can do with them." Don't. Please don't.

I have even found myself as a consenting adult (back to the act) thanking the grass for growing up through the cracks of concrete. I've allowed my mind to drift through shopping lists, lesson plans, holiday destinations and DIY jobs as Diwali productions, Nativities, Good Samaritans and do-as-you-would-be-done-by messages wafted past me and over the children's heads.

But then I got promoted. I can set the agenda. I can hold the floor, command the stage, indulge my thwarted acting ambition. Woe betide the member of staff whose eyelids droop as I capture the audience with religious re-enactments, entertain them with delightful anecdotes from my life experiences, share my moral code and fill their hearts with wonder for the natural world. I swoop on children whose heads turn towards their neighbour or who idly re-stick a Velcro strap, piercing them with my sabre stare. For after all, is this not a collective act? And am I not leading it?

It was the Ofsted inspection that brought me to my knees, however. Stage fright, I now realise. Stupefied, I gabbled through a poem, flashed a colour OHT before bemused eyes, and dismissed the school barely before the first strains of Albinoni had faded. "Is that all?" asked an incredulous infant, finger caught betwixt nostril and tongue. I should have told her that with the collective act, size isn't everything.

Vicki Johnson is a headteacher in the Isle of Wight

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