Setting the scene

You can tell a lot about a school from its assemblies, says James Handscombe, principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

The curtain rises onto a darkened stage; a single spotlight picks out an actor, quite still, and all in black; the audience holds its breath, rapt, straining every nerve to catch the first line, the first action. The pressure, responsibility, privilege of that actor in that moment is intense: they hold the audience in the palm of their hand and the whole of the rest of the play depends on what they do with that opportunity.

We are in a similar position when we deliver an assembly: for one moment the whole school looks in the same direction, and so the person delivering the assembly shares that awesome responsibility – the shape of the day, the week, the school depends to a large extent on what they say and do.

So what do we, as school leaders, do with that moment? I’m afraid too often we muff it, squander the opportunity; we deliver a handful of notices, congratulations and warnings, mumble something about the importance of working hard, stick on some gaudy slides and retire from the field as though we were Sampson or Gregory, marking time before the main event rather than Chorus, delivering the prologue, setting the scene for the story that unfolds.

The most important work of the school is done in lessons, in classrooms, by teachers delivering content, modelling scholarship, forming constructive relationships; but in an assembly we have opportunities to support and guide this work that simply can’t be replicated in a piecemeal fashion.

The whole school, or at least house or year group are there together, students and staff, so what is said is common knowledge to be referred to and built on – everybody has heard it. More than this, however, the words of an assembly carry weight: they are spoken ex-cathedra (not literally – I imagine that most assemblies are delivered standing – but figuratively, they are spoken with authority, with the weight of the school behind the speaker). And these words that everyone hears, that carry weight, are not restricted by subject boundaries, by curricula or exams: they are chosen from all the words that might ever be put together to be those that the community most needs to hear that week, that morning.

I think, therefore, that assemblies are about learning – they exist to teach the school as a whole and the scholars as individuals things that don’t easily fit into lessons

You can tell a lot about a school from its assemblies. You can tell how it values the time of its students, how it thinks of its community, what its priorities are. Visitors see this, but what is more important is that the students and staff feel it. It’s possible (it has been done, many times) to deliver assembly messages that are at odds with the practice of the school: to talk about kindness but to behave with cruelty, or about punctuality but start assembly late and run over the next lesson. This hypocrisy is felt and breeds resentment – what we do is always more important than what we say.

But what we say still matters – if we hold doors open for students and then give an assembly on courtesy and respect then the message lodges faster and more firmly than we could ever achieve by action alone.

I think that schools are about learning – we exist so that children whose lack of time on this earth means that they know little might acquire knowledge, skills and understanding quickly and efficiently.

I think, therefore, that assemblies are about learning – they exist to teach the school as a whole and the scholars as individuals things that don’t easily fit into lessons, whether that be the power of cultural allusion (one might, for example, casually drop a reference to the opening scenes of Romeo and Juliet and let those who get it feel the reward of the inside joke and those that don’t have the pleasure of looking the characters up later), or the nature of a school community, or something specific about scholarship (that students should work hard is not a message that assemblies should avoid, but nor is it enough – work hard doing what, and when, and how?)

And so my specific suggestions are: to protect assembly time from encroachment and use it to the full – if notices can go out by some other method then they should; to aim intellectually just above the students’ heads so they have to look up, so that getting all the allusions is an aspirational activity; to prepare carefully and practise assiduously – this is probably the biggest and most interesting group of people you’ll speak to this week; and to use assemblies to craft ethos, to shape behaviour, to have their ideas live in the reality of the school as well as the silence of the hall.

The players hope that the playgoers will leave the theatre changed: that their souls will have been stirred, their imaginations sparked, their consciences tweaked. The words that were crafted by the playwright, the scenes that were constructed by the director, the emotion that was summoned by the actors were all aimed at this outcome. A play is much more than its opening moment, no matter how dramatic, but without that moment there is no play.

James Handscombe’s new book, A School Built on Ethos: Ideas, assemblies and hard-won wisdom, is out now

Harris Westminster Sixth Form was formed from an agreement in 2013 between Harris Federation and Westminster School

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