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EDUCATION: Then they started shouting back

19 September 2014

Assemblies may be part of the British school experience, says Dennis Richards, but there are definitely pitfalls to avoid if leading one

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 issue.

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 their torpor.

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 dinner yet"?

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 Gandy?"

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 good idea.

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 life.

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 School, Harrogate.

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