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Assemblies that hit home

11 March 2022

Margaret Pritchard Houston gathers hints and tips for clergy and others invited into school


To be a hit at a school assembly, make them interactive

To be a hit at a school assembly, make them interactive

YOU may know the feeling — you’ve been invited to do an assembly. You know it’s important, but everything about it terrifies you. Why am I doing this, you might think. And will I be any good at it?

Dr Rebecca Nye, a researcher in children’s spirituality, reports that, in her experience, clergy felt insecure about taking assemblies. “Some were spending crazy amounts of time preparing assemblies, much more than sermons, due to a lack of confidence. And, of course, lack of training about children — theology of childhood, psychology of faith development, children’s spirituality, spiritual pedagogy — is the root of so much of this.”

Many theological colleges still have very little about these topics, and, while children’s ministry is being included more in IME2, and many curacies include school experience, there are still many clergy who report finding themselves in incumbency and feel unprepared to lead assembles.

It helps to be clear from the beginning about what you are doing. What is an assembly for? “Technically, legally, you’ve got a distinction between assembly time and collective worship time,” the RE and Christian ethos adviser for the diocese of St Albans education team, Ryan Parker, says.

“Assemblies, legally, are for whole-school communication, notices, and matters of discipline, while collective worship provides that opportunity — for those who would like to — to worship God and go deeper spiritually.”

According to Dr Nye, this confusion extends to school leaders as well, and recalls one collective worship “being hijacked by the head teacher to make a moral point about not running in corridors”. For children, “the whole experience was about power and injustice issues: being shushed by adults who then chatted; the sanction of not being allowed to sit on the benches if you’d broken school rules at any point in the day. So, assemblies were associated with sanctions.”

A vicar I spoke to agreed, saying that her children “really object to using the Bible to tell children to behave themselves”.

Ultimately, Mr Parker says, collective worship is “a time to come together, to reflect on areas of values or stories, and a time to celebrate who you are as a school community”.


SO, HOW can this time be used well, in order to achieve those aims? I asked parents to ask their children about this, and Edward, aged five, said that he enjoyed “being in the hall with everyone and singing”, but disliked “lots of sitting still.”

Lorna, aged eight, said: “I like it when you get to do actions and when [adults] let you have fun at the same time [as talking about God].” In general, all the children agreed with Lucy, in Year 9, who said that collective worship should be “interactive, fun, and inspiring”.

Having a structure can help to make this happen. Mr Parker suggests the GERS model, which stands for gather, engage, reflection, sending. Intentionally gathering together “helps create that sense of space and place that separates worship time from disciplinary matters”, Mr Parker says. “How does the school gather?” he asks. “Words? An image on the screen? A quote?”

The engagement section is normally a Bible story, or exploring a theme. “The ‘engage’ bit is the meat,” Mr Parker says. “Might that be a drama? You retelling the story? Something else? How are you going to explore?”

This time needs to allow for imagination, and much preferred stories, or learning about historical figures and saints, not just be packaging for a moral. As one pre-teen said, “constant assemblies to reinforce Christian values gets repetitive and boring.” A Key Stage 2 child agreed, saying: “just having stories with morals all the time is boring.”

Reflection encourages genuine response to the story. This time needs to be open and truly reflective. One parent said that their child disliked “feeling he was being ‘preached at’, or being told how to feel about God”. Techniques that allow for shared conversation, or open reflection, allow children to participate more fully and think for themselves about what the story means. Mr Parker suggests using open “I wonder” questions, which anyone can answer and for which there are no right or wrong answers; or music, prayer, or peer/group discussion and feedback.

Children themselves favour this sort of approach. Reflection on faith, and conversations about faith, should be “an actual two-way chat, not a question/answer with an agenda”, says Molly, age ten. Tabitha, eight, agrees, saying that it’s “not an interrogation”. As Theo, now aged nine, says, a good assembly is one that “lets us share ideas”. And don’t be afraid to go deep. Alice, 11, says that leaders “shouldn’t be afraid to tackle the big stuff, because that’s what I really want answers on”.

The sending part is what Mr Parker says is “often forgotten”, but it is just as important as the rest. “It’s kind of about: ‘OK, so we’ve had this time together; so what?’ Leave them with a quote or something to ponder. . . ‘How are you going to take what we’ve been reflecting on into lessons; into what you do at home; on the playground?’” Alice agrees, saying that it can be helpful to “bridge the gaps. How can what’s in the Bible affect me now?”

It is also important that collective worship is different from corporate (church) worship. Collective worship needs to be inclusive and invitational. This means, Mr Parker says, “being careful about language: not saying ‘as Christians, we believe . . .’ and not assuming everybody would like to pray.”

Jane, a parent I spoke to, asks collective worship leaders to “please bear in mind that some kids are only at faith schools because that’s the local school, and they/parents of no faith, may be concerned about being made to feel uncomfortable.” Again, Mr Parker says, “wondering” questions can be useful, because “everyone can wonder. From their own position, age, and experiences.”


NOW that we have a structure and some principles, what do we actually do? Mr Parker suggests “playing to your strengths” rather than trying to match some idea of what collective worship should look like.

“I know other people do very cool and impressive PowerPoints,” the Revd Ruth Harley, Assistant Curate in the Watling Valley Ecumenical Partnership, says. “That’s not my strong point, so I don’t do it. I’m good at storytelling; so I structure collective worship around a story. I also often bring objects with me, usually to introduce the story or topic and get the children making their own connections. Sometimes, that’s a ‘churchy’ object, but often it’s an everyday object, like a map to introduce journeys, or a bottle of water to introduce baptism.”

The Vicar of Hampstead Parish Church, the Revd Jeremy Fletcher, says, “I rely on leading the singing, where my colleagues use online resources for that. I’m less adept at doing interactive things, where colleagues have been brilliant in producing things which children can take away.”

If you can have even two or three people working on collective worship, this can help broaden the skill set. Charlie, a parent, says that the advert for “a new director of music for [our church] explicitly includes a chunk about working with the school, which is excellent.”


COLLECTIVE worship happens in the context of the church-school relationship. The head of the Growing Faith Foundation, Lucy Moore, points to the growing body of research on the importance of the church/school/home triad for developing spirituality, and suggests that leaders look at the research project Faith in the Nexus. “A school will know if they are a burdensome, box-ticking duty to you, or a vital and exciting part of your parish community,” she says.

A positive relationship with your school can help improve collective worship. Because of a good relationship, Ms Harley was able to plan with school leaders. “The RE co-ordinator, the head, and I would sit down together and plan a term’s worth of topics,” she says. “It only took about half an hour each term, but meant that we had a good range of topics, covered the key points in the Church year, were able to tie in with other things going on in school.”

Mr Fletcher similarly pointed out the value of a positive relationship. “We took the time to align the pattern of collective worship with the school’s vision-and-values statement. We created a comprehensive pattern of staff- and church-led assemblies, which related the themes of each week in the school’s community life and curriculum.”

In the end, good collective worship connects to what is happening in the children’s lives and the school’s culture, to their spirituality. But it also sets time apart — time that is not dedicated to discipline or rules, but to worship. And if, in that space, we take children and their spirituality seriously, we are also doing what Jesus did, and putting children at the centre.

“In a school, adults have all the power,” Alice, 11, says. “I think collective worship is the best place to re-balance that, and let us have the control, and free us to connect with God.”

For information about “I wonder” questions, visit rokreligiouseducation.com.

Margaret Pritchard Houston is the Children’s Mission Enabler in the diocese of St Albans

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