When I was at school, assemblies meant listening to a uninspiring ‘thought for the day’, mumbling hymns read from fuzzy projection paper and staying silent the entire time. Luckily, times have changed: today’s assemblies engage and inspire pupils through the use of guest speakers, prize-giving and even meditation. Here, three schools offer their tips, advice and experience.
Bring the outside in
Cheadle Hulme School recommend inviting guests to assemblies, as students engage with and respond to external speakers well.
Deputy head (pupil progress and welfare) Caroline Dunn says: “Last term we invited DrugFAM founder (and Woman of Achievement in the Women of the Year Awards) Elizabeth Burton-Phillips to Cheadle Hulme School to talk to students in years eight, 10 and 12 during assembly time about her family’s experience of the devastating impact of drugs. Her story is harrowing and at times not easy to listen to, but her message is one we felt the students should hear. In fact, we even invited parents to hear her talk too as we felt it was a discussion they could also get involved with.
“Elizabeth was just one of the many guest speakers we invite to assemblies at Cheadle Hulme – as we feel the students often engage well with and really respond to stories from outside speakers.”
Nigel Lashbrook, headmaster at Oakham School, has several tips for engaging students
1. There is a real power in ‘student-led’ assemblies. If we really want our pupils to take something on board, we often find that the Decem [Oakham’s prefect team], or other pupils in the upper school, will be able to make the most powerful impression.
2. It’s important for pupils to see teachers as having a real passion for their subject, or indeed, out of their subject area. Assemblies are a great space for teachers to ‘vent’ their enthusiasm – and as such, to pass it on to students.
3. One of our housemasters recently led an assembly about meditation, which is something he normally runs in his boarding house to encourage the pupils to stop and find space in their busy day. It was inspiring to see this work in a larger group – with 150 form-four pupils in absolute silence in a collective moment of meditation.
4. Finding a really strong analogy is important for assemblies – one that the students can take away with them and refer back to. If you asked any Oakhamian to think of an assembly, I’m sure they’d remember the ‘geese teamwork talk’. As well as learning a lot about the mechanics of how geese fly, it’s become a good analogy for them to use to encourage their peers to work better as a team.
Mix it up
Rebecca Tear, headmistress of Badminton School in Bristol, says variety is important for keeping pupils’ attention.
“For a whole-school assembly to engage its very wide and varied audience, it is vital that it’s content and structure is not in any way formulaic or simply a regurgitation of a generic plan,” she says. “The message, whatever it is, needs to be delivered with passion and genuine belief. Therefore, as assemblies need to convey an eclectic range of messages over the course of a school year, it is great to have a team of people with different styles, interests and passions to take to the platform.”
Stuart Dalley, historian and director of studies at Badminton School, adds: “There are many ingredients that make a great assembly and I have often found that picking out key stories from the news is a wonderful source of inspiration. News stories are not only topical, but can often be used to convey a wider moral value or message. Added to this, with the recent government focus on the need for schools to promote fundamental British values, I have found that assemblies are the perfect opportunity to expand on these four values (democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs).
“When combined with the anniversary of an important historical event, you have the key to a great assembly. Last year’s celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta provided the perfect chance not only to celebrate this historical milestone, but also to use it as a way of underlining key British values such as the rule of law. That made for the ideal assembly!”
I believe a great assembly is one that reaches the whole community – Rebecca Tear
Rebecca takes a different tack: “I believe a great assembly is one that reaches the whole community. Often scheduled first thing in the morning, an uplifting and thought-provoking message sets the tone for the day. It is also one of the rare moments when the whole school is together, so it is a great time to re-engage everyone with community values and also generate shared experiences and common understanding.
“In our busy lives one of the most important things to remind everyone of is to slow down, appreciate all of the wonderful things that are going on (and each other) and to help everyone retain their sense of awe and wonder.
“I find that mixing up the medium of delivery from assembly to assembly (from using images and video clips to reading poetry or getting everyone involved in an activity) ensures the girls are attentive and engaged. It always amazes me how many parents tell me about how something we said or did in assembly appears in their conversations on the way home in the car or over the evening meal. That makes me smile because it means the girls didn’t just let the messages roll over them, but they took it on board and were truly engaging with it!”