A high quality school assembly is one of the most important aspects of a school's curriculum. Its potential to nurture a positive school ethos that stresses care for the self, others and the pursuit of all forms of excellence should not be underestimated. It powerfully nurtures the development of intrapersonal intelligence.
What follows illustrates how school assemblies, in all phases of schooling, can make a positive contribution to pupil self-development and therefore be at the heart of raising achievement and standards. The examples given are based upon a form of assembly that has been developed by planning to encourage pupils to reflect upon a set of universal values, such as love, peace, truth, co-operation and respect. These values act as the foundation not only for religious education (RE) but for the development of personal, social and health education (PSHE), citizenship and the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) aspects of the curriculum. In other words they underpin the school's institutional values and the whole of the curriculum! I acknowledge with deep gratitude the inspiration of many teachers who have so powerfully contributed to the ideas contained in this article. Particularly, thanks to the school community at West Kidlington Primary and Nursery School in Oxfordshire where I was headteacher for nearly seven years.
1. What is an Assembly?
An assembly is when the school community, or a part of it, meets together to share aspects of life that are of worth. It acts as a medium for communicating matters of significance from one generation to another. In England, an act of collective worship is usually held as part of an assembly as it has been a legal requirement since the 1944 Education Act.
2. Role and Purpose of an Assembly
A school explains the role and purpose of assembly in its documentation: Our assemblies, which include our Acts of Worship [the legal obligation], are an important feature of our school's life. They act as one of the main ways by which we create our positive reflective ethos and promote our values-based education. I am grateful to all colleagues who make a positive contribution to them. In fact, all colleagues make a tremendous contribution through their presence and active participation. Pupils are very aware that all staff, by their positive attitude, involve themselves in assemblies, acting as role models for the pupils to emulate. Assemblies contain times of quiet reflection that enable pupils to develop the deepest values and aspirations of the human spirit.
A visitor to this school remarked:
The most important thing is wholeness - a whole community. This is not a place that is only devoted to teaching pupils things. The function of the school is that the pupils learn their academic stuff more effectively because they learn in a valued, structured environment. The quality of learning is better, and life skills and values are absorbed in ways they are in few other schools. No detail about people, individuals, or the conduct of the school, is considered unimportant. There's a clear sense of vision.
As the quote above exemplifies, assemblies should aim to create, nurture and sustain a sense of community. They can serve to develop a positive school ethos that affirms the school's identity and aspirations. The result being that the school lives in cohesive harmony that sustains the pursuit of excellence in all its forms.
The physical setting for an assembly is important and when possible care should be taken with such detail as heating, ventilation, comfort and the aesthetic nature of the room. To achieve an assembly of excellence the appropriate atmosphere and tone can be created through the sensitive use of:
a central focus, such as a display, that can help pupils think about the theme of the assembly music that can help create a calm and reflective mood black-out and spot lighting (if available) help to make assembly time special the leader of the assembly being seated in an attitude appropriate for a reflective experience as the pupils arrive for assembly all adults in an assembly modelling the behaviour that is expected of the pupils pupils being actively included in all aspects of the assembly.
Underlying the above is the assumption that all who lead an assembly understand the term spiritual. To come to an understanding of this term is essential in-service education for the whole staff. This is necessary because developing and deepening the spiritual dimension of life is key to ensuring that assemblies are powerful vehicles for establishing schools of excellence.
3. Morning Assemblies
Monday morning assembly is particularly important, as it should bring the whole school back together again after the weekend break, to re-focus upon the week in view, on its objectives and the tools that will be used to achieve them. Other assemblies during the week build on the standards that are set at the beginning of the week. Schools should develop their own pattern of assemblies that will include whole school, key stage, year group and class assemblies. Also the time of assembly will vary with purpose.
What should be demonstrated in an assembly is a reiteration of the value of each individual pupil including their individual thoughts and abilities. There should be a reiteration of the importance of those elements to the community and the secure place of each pupil within the school. Finally, at a subtle but powerful level, a reminder of the importance to each pupil and adult in the assembly of the school itself. Indeed a very complex web of ideas, observations and intentions should be woven if the assembly is to be one of excellence.
The pupils should be invited to consider their inner capabilities, their positive worth, their place in the community and their purpose for the week, and to do it from the touchstone of that month's positive value. Pupils respond in the affirmative, so that they are focused, positive, calm, and ready to start. The school community starts from the individual pupil and the value of each one, and allows them to see their part in their own world.
4. The Role of Reflection
Careful thinking about the physical setting for an assembly leads on to the consideration of its form and content. The practice of reflection, sometimes known as creative visualisation or stilling, is probably at least as rare in schools as it is in the larger world. Reflection helps pupils focus upon the positive aspects of themselves that they can value and build on. Incidentally, the use of the word meditation is deliberately avoided because is can create an impression, to the world at large, of images of cross-legged gurus reciting mantras! Reflection, on the other hand, is not so open to misinterpretation.
Silent reflection should be a key element in an assembly. It has several crucial elements that include:
creating an appropriate atmosphere in the assembly that is conducive to leading the pupils in a reflective exercise; encouraging pupils to sit in a relaxed, comfortable and still manner; developing the ability to use the inner eye of imagination; the person conducting the assembly using appropriate words to stimulate the creation of a picture on the screen of the minds of the pupils; pupils developing the skills necessary to go within themselves, thus being observers of their thoughts in order to nurture positive images that support positive behaviour.
The ability of the leader of the assembly to be able to set high expectations in terms of appropriate pupil behaviour and attitude cannot be over emphasised. The pupils will model themselves on this person whose behaviour must be sincere and authentic. Pupils are quick to spot inconsistencies in adult behaviour. They will avoid entering into the reflective spirit of an assembly taken by an adult whose own inner world is unstable. (Some may say that this is an unrealistic expectation, as each adult is on their own path of spiritual development. However, the crucial aspect is to maintain an honest approach that avoids making any pretence at what is untrue in terms of personal beliefs and values.)
5. Examples of Words Used during Reflections
The following are examples of appropriate words that have been used successfully for reflections during assemblies:
With each breath let your body become more and more relaxed. With each out breath, breathe out any worry ... with each in breath feel yourself breathing in quietness and calm ...
Now imagine a beautiful waterfall of light entering the top of your head ... feel the waterfall of light gently flowing through your head ... down your neck ... into your chest and shoulders...The waterfall of light is warm and full of gentle energy. ..Feel it move down your shoulders, into your arms ... your hands and out through your fingers. More light falls as a waterfall down your back - into your tummy - your legs - down to your feet and out through your toes - washing away with it any stress or worry.
Now you are completely bathed in a continuous waterfall of light enjoy its freshness and the gentle calm it brings in a moment you are going to leave the waterfall of light and you will find yourself back in the hall, feeling relaxed, calm and refreshed when you are ready, open your eyes.
In the following, consider the purpose behind each of the four parts of the reflection:
This morning in a moment of silence let us sit very still, close our eyes and feel relaxed. On the screen of your mind, see yourself in your classroom, working hard at an activity, co-operating with others. Feel good about this work. Now think about our month's value - the value of trust - and think about someone you really trust. How do we become trustworthy, so others will trust us What qualities do we need to develop? Patience, tact, friendliness, co-operation, honesty, may be some of the qualities. Choose one to think about during the day....Now open your eyes again.
In a, this form of words, which is often used, invites pupils to adopt a particular physical and mental attitude that sets the scene for the reflection. Pupils come to understand the expression on the screen of your mind in b and with practice learn to use their creative imagination. Positive feelings are invited about working with others in the classroom. In c the month's value word of trust is used. (The school has a cycle of monthly values that are fostered in the pupils.) Thinking about someone the pupil trusts helps to develop a deeper understanding of the concept before returning to think about self-development. Finally in d pupils are invited to take the thinking developed during the reflection into the rest of the day. This helps in the development of the value by making it a recurring theme to think about.
6. Key Elements that Contribute to a Successful Assembly: Planning
The importance of planning cannot be underestimated. Last minute thinking does not create meaningful assemblies. Assemblies can be based on a yearly plan that incorporates monthly values and weekly themes. This plan is the subject of staff discussion and amendment because it is important that all staff feel comfortable with the proposed themes. This process gives a sense of ownership of both the process and content of the assemblies. This is vital as it stops assemblies from being seen as elements of the curriculum for which headteachers are solely responsible.