IN JULY, a report from the National Governors' Association
suggested that the 70-year-old requirement for all schools to
include a daily act of collective worship should be dropped. Within
days, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, who chairs
the Church of England Board of Education, was encouraging
educationists in general to engage in a sensible debate on the
We have, of course, been here before - many times. School
assembly, as the act of worship is commonly known, is as much part
of the fabric of British society as school uniform, a five-o'clock
cup of tea, the Queen, the 30mph speed limit, and Test cricket.
It's just, sort of, there.
Every time the French-exchange party arrives in school, a key
part of their visit is to attend an assembly. There is nothing
remotely like it in the avowedly secular French system. It is like
the Changing of the Guard: quaint, baffling - and making no sense.
Parents, however, tend to like assemblies, because they fit in with
their general, what might be called, "Brussels sprouts" theory of
education: "You might not like them, but get them down you. . .
They're good for you. . . I had to."
Students greet them with a kind of benign apathy. "Which of my
assemblies have you preferred?" as I asked of the school council.
"The short ones." Thank you very much. This is the same school
council that, when asked about acts of "collective worship" by the
Inspection Service, feigned ignorance of the term. "We don't do
those. We have assemblies." Thanks again.
If Bishop Pritchard is really serious, we could lift the lid for
him. We would probably start with his own troops - the priests. All
schools are desperate to find assembly leaders: the local priest is
the first port of call for both secular and church schools. Without
their faithfully fulfilling their calling around the country, the
system would collapse. If they refuse, the Bishop's job would be
done for him.
And there are nightmare stories. We can agree that it is an
awful temptation, as you look out at a sea of 250 glazed
expressions on the faces of the students, who are at best switched
off, and at worst asleep, to say or do something to wake them from
For what other reason would you choose the story of Salome and
the head of John the Baptist, and proceed, in a cassock, to
demonstrate to your stunned audience the dance of the seven veils?
Or, at the outset of the nativity story, invite two students to "go
behind the piano and make a baby"?
When a priest arrived at our annual ecumenical service bearing
portraits of Henry VIII and Pope Benedict, we guessed that we were
in trouble. And we were. And how about the time when, in our
multi-cultural school, the priest brought visual aids - a genuine
piece of gold jewellery, and a fake. He got as far as telling us
that Christianity was the genuine article, and that all the others
were . . . when a collective coughing fit seized the staff, and
drowned out the potential for a riot.
Battling to get the attention of reception-class-aged children
is equally demanding. In fact, getting them to face in the right
direction is a challenge in itself. And asking questions is fraught
with danger. The question is a good one, along the lines of the
point of the story. A forest of hands shoots up. Ah, the lottery of
life. The priest is unlucky. The chosen one replies: "Have I had my
It is, of course, wholly unfair to imply that the clergy have
more mishaps than the rest of us. We will all forget, at some
stage, that our audience includes children who simply cannot cope
with rhetorical questions. To ask innocently: "And why would anyone
wish to behave like that?" is a recipe for disaster. There will
certainly be a vocal response from Joey, in our school, inevitably
wrecking the point that you are trying to make. And, in fairness,
the clergy are rarely under-prepared - unlike the rest of us, who
have been known to wing it from time to time.
A colleague in Wigan, where the students' heroes tend to be
muscular rugby-league players, thought that a DVD about Gandhi
would make a great non-violence assembly. He should really have
watched it first. The first slide - inevitably the well-known
Gandhi image - reduced the audience to such a paroxysm of mirth
that the assembly collapsed in ruins. Whatever you might wish to
say of Gandhi, he was never going to play rugby for Wigan.
The haranguing language from the front became more and more
violent, and the message was not just lost, it was obliterated.
Indeed, later in the day, students were heard asking "What's a
Using the assembly to confront students with their abysmal
behaviour is also a grave temptation, and to be avoided at all
costs. In one prestigious school, a head teacher was in full flow
with a withering critique of their wretched behaviour, shouting
that enough was enough. Indeed it was. Year 11 started shouting
back. It is probably going too far to say that he was carried out
on a stretcher, but he certainly never appeared in the school
again. Bad assembly experiences can change careers.
Nor am I immune. Always avoid giving the little blighters any
information that they might be able to use against you. Why did I
think that an assembly about Dennis the Menace was a good idea? I
was instantly nicknamed "Beano boy" by students and staff
alike, and my goose was well and truly cooked. When an entire class
arrived wearing Dennis the Menace badges, and with stuffed toys
that looked like Gnasher, I knew that it was time to move on.
As did the deputy head who "spoofed" his entire audience into
looking on the floor for a diamond stone that had been lost in the
hall at a PTA function on the previous evening. By any measure, it
was a mistake not to remind his colleagues beforehand that the date
was 1 April. As teachers crawled all over the floor, earnestly
marshalling the concerted effort, he could have guessed that they
would immediately plot revenge when the truth dawned. They did; and
it was not pretty. He left in the summer.
Christian heroes used to be a safe subject - but not when they
turn out not to be heroes after all. There are still hundreds of
assembly books to be pulped as one hero after another has fallen
from grace. Perhaps the Bishop's suggestion for more silence was a
But, in the end, I would advise him to leave well alone. Have a
cup of tea, sing "God save the Queen", and move on. After all,
Brussels sprouts do taste better as you get older. It's a fact of
Dennis Richards is chairman of governors at St Oswald's C of
E Primary Academy, Bradford; a governor at David Young Community
Academy, Leeds; and a former head teacher of St Aidan's C of E High