A classy address

Assemblies still have an important role to play in school life, says Hilary Moriarty

There is – obviously enough – a gap between the writing of any of these articles and their publication. Someday I may get the hang of looking forward to publication date and seeking out interesting anniversaries in pursuit of that glimmer, that glint of gold which is the starting point of any article and which would be considered wonderfully timely in three months’ time. Someday.

Meanwhile, the spur to write comes from many and various places and today it’s an anniversary. By the time you read this, it won’t be so current, but you will be familiar with the event which took place on 19 November 1863 – and go to the head of your quiz team if it comes to mind even as you read these lines.

On that date, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, and how could that date not make you want to write a piece for a publication like IET?

Next time you come across a group of headteachers, pause for a moment and ask how many of them have ever used the Gettysburg Address as the basis of an assembly – probably in November when their diaries, newspapers or secretaries remind them of the anniversary, but could be any day of the year. I guarantee there will be many. Next question: ‘How did you use it?’ One thing I think I discovered in headship was that for best results, you use it alone – a tiny introduction, who said it and when, then the address itself. Lincoln that day was ‘better’ than most of us who ever dare to stand on a stage and talk to large numbers of people at once will ever manage to be: brief, simple, powerful. And that’s why the words still resonate – “the proposition that all men are created equal”, “the living dedicated to the great task remaining before us”, “the dead shall not have died in vain”, a “new birth of freedom” and the final declaration “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.

You can almost guarantee you will hear a pin drop.

To add to the address itself is to get dangerously near what many of our pupils would call ‘blah blah whatever’ territory. And – often – we do go on, don’t we? Say it again, say it differently, have a slide show, explore it thoroughly. Maybe it’s just part of a teacher’s armoury – keep talking and you will get away with it. Perhaps even more so for a senior leader, whose capacity to do a great presentation in the selection process will have contributed to their getting the top job in the first place. Maybe. But whatever the instinct to elaborate – “When I visited Gettysburg itself …” – resist if at all possible when this speech is on your lectern. Let the words speak for themselves. You may have the shortest assembly in a while, but it may also be the one your students remember.

A memorial to Abraham Lincoln

Oddly enough, as I discovered on a recent trip to, yes, America, and 20 miles from, if not quite at, Gettysburg itself, the address is not quite flawless. HL Mencken considered the address “genuinely stupendous”, but pointed out that “it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense.” He went on to point out that “The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of the people to govern themselves.” Now there may be the meat of what you might call a ‘real’ assembly – an examination of appearance and reality, indeed the very smoke and mirrors by which orators can charm and beguile us, offer us language which lodges in our brains and never goes away, becomes a touchstone for what we believe, or hold dear, a marker for who we are.

It is tempting now to continue, “Be that as it may …” because at the very least the address has turned into the material for not one assembly but two, one demonstrating its power – “Are you ready? Get this …” – the next offering consideration and analysis. A double whammy. One to let the words sink in and perhaps never be forgotten; another to remind our students that we are thoughtful and reflective creatures, capable of challenging what we are offered as truths, perhaps especially those cunningly dressed in poetry.

I write as if assemblies were still the regular parts of the school day with which I grew up. It would not have occurred to me or my classmates in a North Wales grammar school that the day could begin any other way – whole school, all together now, “Sing!” a hymn, hear a prayer, hear an address – and no, never a mention of Gettysburg. When I look back, was it an immense waste of time? Perhaps its only long-term effect was that many of us would have chosen the hymns for our weddings – funerals? – based on the ones we grew up singing so often.

I wasn’t surprised when I worked in a large comprehensive school, newly created out of a grammar and a secondary modern, and there was simply nowhere big enough to hold the school. So assemblies stopped unifying the whole school and became instead indicators of division and difference – years seven-nine or years 10 and 11 or even girls then boys. I remember the gentle shambles of the birth of a new school, in which the fate of assemblies was probably the least of our worries and not remotely on the list of any pupil. But the writing, as they say, was on the wall.

If you couldn’t fit the pupils in the room, did it matter? Who was going to take assemblies – who would dare, as pupils changed, visibly and invisibly, with the changing world? How much were we spending on hymn books for hymns no one knew and most pupils tried to avoid singing? If nobody listened to what was said, could the time be better spent? Probably. Back to class. Chase the grades – that’s what they will measure. What was assembly for anyway?

It seems to me that assemblies have retained a place of value and importance in independent schools and of course especially in boarding schools where the school day is longer. They are unifying events – there is enormous power and camaraderie in the gathering together of the whole school, in uniform and rank order, for generating a sense of belonging and even comfort, particularly if you are a long way from home. But they are probably not daily events – and arguably have more sense of occasion for the very fact of being once or twice a week rather than a daily grind. And they often give voice to pupils of all persuasions instead of offering a platform only for those in power.

But today, where better to promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs than in a whole school assembly in which they can be proclaimed loud and clear?

And for all that, we could do a lot worse than the Gettysburg Address.

Hilary Moriarty is an education consultant, ISI inspector and former national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association W: www.hilarymoriarty.com    

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