I remember my first day at school. I really do. The headteacher, (whose name I can’t remember), read us a story in assembly about a boy with a fish, a stone and a knife. I remembered it all year and I know this because I remember asking the headteacher in the summer sports day if she was ever going to read it to us again. There is another assembly I can recall when a different headteacher told us a story about buying a bag of ‘wonky veg’.
He used it to explain to us about how a certain tomato, with its bumpy attached twin, was still a tomato. He told us how he had challenged himself to buy it, because it was clearly still a tomato. He taught me about difference and inclusion, seeking out one’s unconscious bias, all in a moment.
Ofsted has not paid much attention to ‘collective worship’ requirements since 2004. Parents also have a very clear right to withdraw their children from collective worship, reinforced recently in a case which concluded that the parents with children in a faith school had a right to demand secular, prayer-free sessions away from the main assembly. So if assemblies are not there for collective worship, what exactly is their point and how can we get the best out of them?
One of the biggest things I worry about when planning an assembly is the knowledge that it’s hard to find something that will gain traction with the full age range. I am only too aware of how much (or little!) the complicated language that may trip off my tongue actually lands in the minds of the five-year-olds in front of me. And equally, if I pitch what I deliver at the five-year-olds, how long will the Year 6 pupils last before switching off.
Get them hooked
Experience tells me that there are two things that ensure their attention is captured. The first is that you link your assemblies with a connecting ‘hook’. Build on something from week to week and it gives those young minds something to latch onto. I am currently delivering assemblies using a different page from ‘What a Wonderful Word’ by Nicola Edwards, beautifully illustrated by Luisa Uribe. The first week was a little bit wobbly but now five weeks in, I can sense the expectancy as the children arrive.
Tell a story
I also ensure there is a story. Even if it is a little anecdote, the story is at the heart. You only have to pick up a book on change management to read about the power of stories, and how they are one of the most effective tools for introducing new ideas and making them stick. There, I believe, lies the purpose of an assembly. Our job is to provide transformative experiences for our children, to take them somewhere new and to stretch their thinking. Sometimes the machine of transformation might be a little bit crude - capturing all 400 or so children at one time is hard - but with the right hook, and the right story, you can definitely move everyone to another place.
I return to the headteacher with his tomato. Tell a story and the children will hop on for the ride. And you never know, one child in the room might remember it for decades to come.
Rebecca Leek is director of strategy at ASSET Education and a former SENCo