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Freedom of assembly

From politics to prefects, Charley Rogers speaks to headteachers across the country about what makes a great school assembly

Posted by Julian Owen | December 03, 2017 | School life

The school assembly is a feature of compulsory education that is met with some ambivalence. For those that remember joyful communities and spirited sing-a-longs, assemblies are met with enthusiasm and nostalgia, but for those that remember stuffy lectures in a cramped hall, the idea seems stagnant and dated. 

Luckily, modern assemblies are a far cry from these forced congregations, and are much more pupil-focused and relevant. As well as addressing current affairs and important school goings-on, assemblies are revered as an equal and welcoming community space where all members of a school can meet to discuss issues that are important to them. 

I recently had the chance to speak with a few independent school headteachers about what their memories of assemblies are, and what they think makes a great one. One of the most common comparisons between modern-day assemblies versus the assemblies that occurred when these headteachers were in school, is that assemblies now are a lot more student-focused, and are an inclusive environment that considers the opinions of the whole school, rather than just a senior figure. 

Helen Stringer, Head at Northampton High School, said, “Assemblies only work if their content resonates with the listeners, even if it also provokes them. And one of the challenges of crafting a good assembly is including something for everyone in the Hall, from the youngest pupils to the most experienced staff members.” 

"Assemblies can be a powerful tool in ensuring that all pupils get access to the same insights."

For James Allen, Head at Beech Hall School, assemblies are a time to reflect on school values, and to celebrate the achievements of pupils. He commented, “I would like to think that we are much more child-centred and relevant now in our approach to assemblies. We have two main assemblies per week. One for our senior pupils that focuses on our school values, based on the Olympic and Paralympic core values, and Friday is a celebration assembly for our infant and junior pupils; a great opportunity to celebrate achievements in all aspects of school life.” 

One of the defining factors of assemblies today is that not only do the topics covered appeal to all members of the school, but the assemblies themselves are also often led by pupils, or feature non-academic staff. Sally Davis, Principal of Howell’s School, explained that assemblies at Howell’s are taken by a variety of people, and that, “The format of assemblies varies greatly from an interview with a hidden hero of the school, for example the catering manager, to hard-hitting factual assemblies of the issues surrounding cyber bullying.”

Introducing important topics to students has always been a feature of the traditional assembly, although the issues that are considered important have changed drastically over the years. Recalling an assembly preaching the dangers of rock music, Helen said how her headteacher, Mr. R, asked students not to listen to Pink Floyd. Of the experience, Helen said, “Columbia Records PR team themselves could not have done a better job of promoting the song to us!” 

Needless to say, things are very different at Northampton High. The school takes a much more positive and constructive approach, often marking milestones in the year such as Remembrance Day, Holocaust Memorial Day, International Women’s Day, and the school’s birthday. On the various topics covered at the school, Helen said, “Themes vary from the solemn (democratic values in an age of terrorism) to the light-hearted (a sports Kahoot! quiz) but a constant is to engage with life’s big questions and to connect with global events.” 

"As well as addressing current affairs and important school goings-on, assemblies are revered as an equal and welcoming community space."

As well as debating the big (and little) issues facing society, school assemblies can be a time to address the essential microcosm of the school. This is a common topic at Beech Hall School, and James explained how their assemblies often report from the Prefects. “For example, they are currently working to develop an educational information pack for an upcoming four-day trip to Iceland which was instigated and planned by our Senior Head Boy and Deputy Head Boy,” said James.  

However, the most important thing about a successful assembly is that it needs to be engaging. Regardless of topic, every school assembly needs to be delivered in the right way. “They need to be lively, interesting and thought-provoking,” explained Sally. “Ideally they need a super starter, a marvellous middle and fabulous finish!” For Helen, the most important part is the actual “assembly bit”.

“Just as humanity gained a clearer sense of itself once humans could see the whole planet for the first time, from space, so a school gains a deeper and richer sense of itself as a community from the act of assembling together in a room and sharing experiences and thoughts,” said Helen. 

Speaking to these headteachers has brought up both expected topics, and more surprising insights. In receiving responses, I was struck with the passion that each school has for its assemblies, and the thought that goes into their production. Not only do these headteachers and their staff take great care in ensuring that their assemblies are well thought-out and inclusive of the entire school, but that they are also perpetually relevant to the worlds in which their students live. Schools are focusing on student wellbeing, and in preparing them for the issues they are likely to face once they have left school. Assemblies can be a powerful tool in ensuring that all pupils get access to the same insights, and that they have the chance to address each other on a peer-to-peer level. 

The view of assemblies here is not that they are a necessary nuisance, but that they are an encouraging and even fun aspect of school life, and a true privilege. As Helen added, “Many schools nowadays are just too big to be able to do this and this is a great loss, in my opinion.  Some powerful (but invisible) social glue is made in those moments.” 

What was your favourite school assembly?

“A recent highlight (and one of those quirky annual traditions that make schools such stimulating places to be) was Mr Attwood’s Pumpkin Assembly. Written and led by our pumpkin-mad Head of Biology, it featured a lesson in evolution, a Paul Hollywood-style pumpkin scone taste test and a rendition of an Oasis hit song with pumpkin-related lyrics.” Helen Stringer, Northampton High School

“Most recently, a group of Year 11 pupils have delivered an entertaining and informative presentation about their Duke of Edinburgh Silver expedition, and junior and infant pupils celebrated the end of half-term with their Harvest Assembly. I can’t sing, but will continue to join in with gusto because they’re just brilliant!” James Allen, Beech Hall School

“My favourite assembly was one where I read a letter which I had written to my 16-year-old self which contained all the advice and words of wisdom that I wished I had known when I was 16!” Sally Davis, Howell’s School 

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