The Power of the Assembly
by Nicky Jones
In primary school, I loved assemblies.
In secondary school, I absolutely loathed them.
As a teacher I have always (to the bafflement of many) enjoyed planning and delivering assemblies so it seems strange to me that for five years, I really couldn’t stand them. I actually found every aspect of them completely mortifying.
In a twist of fate that would have left my 14-year-old self in a state of horror, my current job role consists, in part, of planning and delivering whole-school assemblies and some of the form time schedule. This has caused me to consider the disparity from my own time at school: how did something I got so much out of in primary school become something that I dreaded so much in secondary school? Why does the music I walked into at primary school (‘Matchstick Men’ as an ode to L.S. Lowry- in case anybody is interested) hold such nostalgia yet the strained, grainy recording of the ‘Neighbours’ theme tune that was occasionally played in secondary school, still break me out into a cold sweat?
There are a few things to consider when exploring this. The first one is to acknowledge the difference in age. As we all know, teenagers have a lot to contend with and it is understandable that they might find the experience of an assembly less enchanting than a younger child.
The second one is to appreciate that the pastoral curriculum looks different from primary to secondary school. For the sake of clarity, when I refer to the pastoral curriculum in this post, I am referring to the learning that happens during assemblies and form time in secondary school. I recognise that this looks different in primary school, so my experiences aren’t a completely like-for-like comparison.
The third is more of a disclaimer: this is very much a description of my own experiences of school, both as a student and as a teacher, and is certainly not a criticism of any individual. I suspect that, in many schools, the pastoral curriculum (and assemblies, in particular) have always been an opportunity for celebration. This just was not what I found to be the case and symptomatic of the culture of the school I attended as a pupil, at the time- not of any one person.
So, disclaimers aside, the age difference and the myriad of factors that come with that are worthy of recognition, but they don’t fully explain the gulf between my primary and secondary school experiences.
The more I have thought about it, the more I actually think it was much more to do with the content of the assemblies and form time, rather than the experience or difference in attitude.
You see, when I think about my primary school assemblies, I think of allegories. Assemblies often centred around a moral message and the focus very much seemed to be on us being good, kind people.
I still remember an assembly story that the headteacher told us about an orchestra playing a piece of music and the conductor stopping them abruptly and explaining that it didn’t sound right. He could tell somebody wasn’t playing. One musician nervously raised her hand and explained that there was no point in her playing because her instrument, the piccolo, was so small and quiet that it didn’t matter. The conductor explained that everybody’s contribution was important- no matter how insignificant or unimportant that person perceived it to be. The headteacher went on to explain that we all played a part in the life of the school and that we mustn’t think that our voices weren’t important.
I have told that story many times in my teaching career (to admittedly varying receptions!) but it something that has always stayed with me.
I remember there being a real focus on how we treated ourselves, as well as how we treated other people. When I speak to my primary colleagues about assemblies, they nearly always speak of certificates, values and breaking down exactly what it means to be kind through a variety of mediums and examples. Assemblies and the pastoral curriculum, as a whole, have the power to shape children and be transformative – to instil something memorable and important within students.
They also have the power to leave students feeling disillusioned. When I think about why I disliked assemblies and form time so much at secondary school, it was partly because it never felt like there was any sort of focus on building us as people- more often than not, they were a chance to point out what we were doing wrong. Even the ‘Neighbours’ theme tune was a musical starting point from which to tell us that we hadn’t been very neighbourly that week. It very much felt like an opportunity to reprimand rather than to celebrate. My friends and I used to talk about how baffling we found having to sit through an entire assembly dedicated to being shouted at about punctuality when our mere presence at the assembly meant that we weren’t really the intended audience.
This sense that assemblies and form time were opportunities to instil discipline permeated across both. At the time, it felt to me and my friends that there was very little recognition of genuine achievement. Inevitably, when students were praised, because this was so infrequent and so incongruous to the general culture of the school, the students who did receive praise were beyond embarrassed. I remember begging my form tutor not to mention that I had won the reading competition because I knew how much mockery I would be subjected to and it just did not feel worth it.
It is important to say at this point that I absolutely agree that reminding students of the expectations surrounding behaviour can be a powerful and purposeful way to use assemblies and form time. I just do not think it can be the only thing that happens in that forum.
I also appreciate that some students will always find public recognition embarrassing. However, I believe that the more that this is done and the more that this becomes part of the culture of the school, the higher the likelihood is that the embarrassment will dissipate drastically. I worked at one school where students were taught the proper etiquette as to how to accept an accolade. They were told to stand immediately, walk up to the front proudly, to shake the headteacher’s hand, to wait for the applause and to accept this graciously. From year 7, there was a very clear message that being praised was something to be proud of and not to shy away from it. Whilst I don’t think this would necessarily be the right approach for every child, I certainly think there is something in this set of behaviours being taught explicitly.
More than anything, I think that students should know that their pastoral curriculum is underpinned by the belief that we want them to flourish. In my experience, students benefit from having a clear structure and sense that their assemblies and form time sessions link to their broader school life. There should be a consistent message that these build upon one another and are part of a sequence. Whilst I think there is a lot to be said for building in flexibility within the pastoral curriculum schedule to speak to students as a collective about any behaviour issues that have arisen in school when necessary, I believe that this is most effective when the focus of the schedule is to build students’ characters and expose students to a range of knowledge and enriching sources.
I also believe that it is very important to use this platform as a way of addressing challenging news stories and to create an environment in which these can be discussed in a nurturing way. To be totally honest, there have been some topics over the last year that I have really agonised about making an assembly on because I have felt concerned about not articulating it properly or saying the ‘wrong’ thing and I always remind myself that if I, as an adult, am finding something challenging to discuss, then all the more reason for us to help students to find a way to make sense of it.
That being said, I think that students should feel empowered to be part of the discussion on important societal issues and to have their voice heard- I personally do not believe that we should leave it up to students to explain complex issues to their peers or to be the ones to deliver assemblies on this. We as the adults should take on the more nuanced topics. At best, students delivering on sensitive issues can lead to misunderstandings and, at the very worst, it can lead to the students most affected by an issue being given the burden of having to explain this to their year group. Neither of which is a desirable outcome from discussing an important or divisive topic.
Fundamentally, I think it is easy to arrive at the conclusion that by the time students are in secondary school, that their moral education is largely complete and that therefore assemblies and form time can be much more utilitarian in content. To the contrary, I would argue that there is no better time to focus on the development of students’ character and their social behaviours during their teenage years. The collective experience of assemblies and form time is a uniquely powerful and unifying way of doing this.
Our form time/ assembly schedule this year comprises of:
Current Affairs- this is focused on an important news story from that week. Every other week is dedicated to a faculty discussing a news story that is linked to their subjects.
Form Time Reading- every year group has a book that they read once a week. This has guided questions and is thematically relevant to the pastoral curriculum.
Values Assembly- each term focuses on a different school value: kindness, knowledge, aspiration. The value is explored each week through allusions, proverbs, music, literature and artwork.
House Assembly/ Year Group Assembly- this is an opportunity to remind students about behaviour expectations but more than anything is used to celebrate the students who have excelled in effort and attitude that week.
Form Time PSHE- this follows the statutory requirements for PSHE and also links to the other aspects of the pastoral curriculum such as the school’s values.
We are always happy to share and collaborate, so if you would like any more information about our approach to our pastoral curriculum, do not hesitate to contact email@example.com.