Why YOU should request to lead assemblies.

Hello everybody, it's been a while but the Summer is over and school is most assuredly back in session.  This week I want to explore school assemblies: how to make the most of them and why you should definitely be volunteering to lead at least one every month.  

I've been accused (perhaps fairly) of rambling in past posts so, new academic year; new me, I'm going to jump straight in...

...after saying that I'm going to try to post once a week this year.  An assortment of recommendations, tips, anecdotes, and education theory and practice.  I'd love to hear from you if there are any areas you would like covered - any books, websites or apps you want me to review; any aspects of assessment, policy or planning you want me to explore or explain... anything at all really.  Just let me know either in the comments below or directly through Twitter.

Okay, leading the perfect assembly.

According to the School Standards and Frameworks Act (1998):

Subject to section 71, each pupil in attendance at a community, foundation or voluntary school shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship.[1]

Now, what constitutes 'collective worship' is a little bit up for debate.  The next section of the Act states that it should reflect the "religious education given in accordance with the school’s basic curriculum." [2]  So if your school is Catholic, then expect assemblies to lean heavily on Catholocism; if it's Muslim, then there will be a more Islamic expectation; it if's secular then, according to the legislature, it should not be devoid of religion, merely representative of different types.

I've worked in schools that have treated assemblies like mini church services (literally) and some that have treated them like government-mandated housekeeping (a time to ensure that messages are heard by everyone).  Incidentally, if the school is affiliated with a certain religion, the child (through parental consent) has the right to not attend the assembly.  Or at least, not the religious part.  However, there is a suggestion that if a child is withdrawn then it is up to the parent to provide religious education they deem appropriate during the withdrawal; not the school.  In fact, there is a clause that states that, if the school is not providing the sort of religious education that the parents desire, they should attempt to find a school that does.  

Talk among yourselves over the ethics of that one.

Anyway, long story short, you need some sort of religious element to it; but this can be pretty tangential so it's useful to remember that pretty much all religions agree that people should be kind to each other and show tolerance.  If your school insists on a prayer, but you don't feel comfortable delivering one, you can either ask for someone else to help with that bit or just invite the children to offer a silent prayer from their heart.

Most assemblies need to last a maximum of 15 minutes - this includes entry and exit time, so you're really only looking at filling 11 minutes.  Make sure you have picked out a theme (if your school has a value or quality of the month then go with that) and plan a very brief script.  You should only need 3-5 bullet points, I'll show you how to make things last!

If you're really not sure about what theme to pick, EducationGroup has a good list, or there's always onthisday.com or Ten Things We Didn't Know Last Week.  Catholic school teachers, you have a wealth of saints' days to pick from!

When you have your theme, you want to sort your script.

I tend to follow this line of enquiry:

  • Today is [insert day here].  Does anyone know what that means?[Take some answers.  If someone gets it right, carry on; if not, explain what it means].
  • And this reminds me a little bit of our school value of [pick one.  They're usually fairly generic like friendship, determination, resilience, tolerance, curiosity... There will be one you can relate it to.  If not, throw it out to the children.  Display all the qualities/values and ask them which one it reminds them of].  
  • Launch into a short story (this table, created by Assembly Tube has so many it's unreal).  If you can use a projector for illustrations, great.  If you can use some older children as actors/puppets, even better.
  • Discuss the point of the story and ask what the children are going to do to show its positive message.  If you have time, take some suggestions; if you're running long, tell the children to tell the person next to them.  I think it's important for them to verbalise it though because it makes it a) interactive and b) more real.
  • Call out some 'super-sitters' or otherwise excellently behaved children (if you want to, you can invite them to collect a sticker from you at playtime - this is extra handy if you're new to the school because you get to know children's names and they get to know you as someone who recognises good behaviour).
  • Pick an appropriate song to leave to (this one can be more upbeat if you like but remember that they do need to get to class and be ready to learn, so avoid anything too exciting. 

That's basically it.  The more you do, the more confident you'll become and the easier they will seem.  A few more things... 

Remember: crowd control is key, so if you can have some TAs or even other teachers on hand, that's ideal.  

Calming music is good to have playing when the children are coming in - not too loud.  Classical is all very well and good but don't be afraid to mix it up (I like to throw in a bit of lofi every now and again).  Avoid lyrics if you can. 

Also, I find having a question displayed is a good way to show that you have already started.  Something that hints at the theme of the assembly.  If it's about courage, then What would do you do if your friend was scared? That sort of thing.  Quiet, introspection to get things going. You can spend a few minutes taking answers.  You could even build it into a (small) public display.

Finally, if ever you possibly can, volunteer to hold a singing practise assembly.  The National Curriculum in England states that children need to 'learn to sing and to use their voices'. [3]  Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education in England) have previously said that schools need to take 'every opportunity to raise standards of singing' and that 'whole-school singing sessions' [4] were a way to do that.  

While it might feel a bit daunting, it's the easiest thing in the world.   You have YouTube to access instrumental versions of songs. Children love to sing.  You don't have to engineer a whole school of Julie Andrews prodigies, you just have to make sure their voices go up and down at the correct times.  Grab a couple of TAs (or maybe even another teacher, possibly the music coordinator) and give them lots of stickers.  Any children you catch singing gets one.  You can cover those kids in stickers, they will sing the rafters down. And there will always be some enthusiastic Year 6 or 5 children who would give their left arm to stand at the front and lead the whole thing.

But what about reluctant singers?  You make them singing ambassadors.  You tell them (one-to-one that you've noticed they don't really like singing but that they always try anyway, so you're going to have them be an ambassador to a younger year group.  They get their own (smaller) sheet of stickers and they get to hand them out to the children in that particular class who are giving it their all.  If you're not happy giving them the sticker sheet, then they can tell you who gets a sticker at the end of the song.  Trust me, it works.

The other thing about leading a singing assembly is that they are usually longer, which means that the members of staff who are not involved will be very appreciative because they have up to an extra 15 minutes of prep time.  You can even request a rota of staff who stay and help.  You will not be refused!

And that's it.  My guide to leading the perfect assembly.  As an added bonus, to all you NQTs or ECTs out there, leading a singing assembly checks off elements of the following Teaching Standards:

1) Set high expectations which inspire, motivate and challenge pupils

5) Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils 

7)  Manage behaviour effectively to ensure a good and safe learning environment

8) Fulfil wider professional responsibilities

And to a lesser extent (but you could use it as evidence towards these):

2) Promote good progress and outcomes by pupils

6) Make accurate and productive use of assessment [5]

I hope you have found this helpful or at the very least, interesting.  Apologies to international readers, this was particularly England-heavy.  To remedy that, I would love to hear your stories about collective worship / assemblies wherever in the world you teach.  Is singing a part of the curriculum?  Is there a mandatory religious element?  I'm doing my travelling through you guys so please do get in touch.

Until next time, look after each other and have fun!

Carl Headley-Morris

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References in this post:

[1] & [2] Great Britain. (1998). School standards and framework act 1998: Elizabeth II. Chapter 31. TSO.

[3] Department for Education. (2013, September 11). National curriculum in England: music programmes of study. GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-music-programmes-of-study

[4] Ofsted. (2012). Music in schools: Wider still, and wider: Quality and inequality in music education 2008--11.

[5] Department for Education. (2012, May). Teachers’ standards : May 2012. Gov.uk; Department for Education. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/665520/Teachers__Standards.pdf