Twice a week the entire Birkdale community squeezes into the Heeley Hall for 20 minutes of shared experience. As I hover, be-gowned, at the hall entrance, greeting students, gesticulating at boys with ties at half-mast and waiting for my cue to commence proceedings, I often reflect upon the benefits of assemblies or Prayers as Birkdale calls them.
Cynics may question whether it is possible to communicate anything meaningful to such a wide age-range, whether the students do more than doze fitfully, awaiting the start of period 1, and whether the time could be better used in the classroom given the pressure of public examinations. I disagree and offer the following insight into assembly life.
The announcements of sports results and presentations of certificates, badges, cups, prizes and achievements of all varieties allow the celebration of excellence, the recognition of effort, a measure of the range of activities and the acknowledgement of teamwork whether in the service of School or House. It also compels the successful, though often nervous, teenager to stride past their peers, applause ringing in their ears, shake the Head Master’s hand with at least feigned coolness and retire, hopefully encouraged and a little more confident in their ability to carry off public appearances. A short musical or dramatic performance provides a showcase for artistic endeavour and the sense of pride that washes around the hall as someone produces a piece of real quality is striking. Some may argue that the relatively unsuccessful may feel demotivated as the chosen are inevitably a small proportion of the total, even measured over a term, but the opposite danger of failing to appreciate and cherish achievement and the varied talents of other people seems graver.
Notices and expressions of gratitude allow some students opportunities to practise public speaking and enable members of staff to enthuse sections of the community: electronic means of conveying information are effective but lack the inspirational qualities of an impassioned appeal for support for a new lunchtime society or other initiative.
Those who doubt the power and appeal of communal singing have clearly never indulged in an afternoon at Bramall Lane or Hillsborough. Recreating that level of volume first thing in the morning through the vehicle of a hymn is not always possible but singing is good for the physical health, brightens the mood and builds camaraderie. I believe both that there is no-one who cannot sing and that everyone can get better at singing given the opportunity.
I am deeply grateful to the staff and visitors who prepare and deliver interesting and varied assemblies; to develop and present a lively and engaging message for students with an age range of 11-18 even with modern audio-visual equipment and the internet is no easy task. So far this term I have explored learning, via my summer project of seeking to master the harmonica from scratch, before moving on to a series on what attempts to make computers mimic humans tell us about the human condition; language and the nuances of communication explored through chatbots, curiosity viewed through the lens of Sherlock Holmes and creativity reflected in Boogie Woogie and the Six Word Story ( http://sixwordstoryeveryday.blogspot.co.uk/ ). I am concocting assemblies on emotions, morality, personality and the search for meaning to share after half-term; a professional challenge on an altogether greater scale than the preparation of effective S3 Physics lessons. Other members of staff have tackled themes as diverse as marriage, Gap Years, happiness, cycling and the theory of aggregation of marginal gains alongside regular updates on EcoSchools, European Languages, charities and the Duke of Edinburgh Scheme. Many traditional Christian themes have also featured to allow students to engage with the big questions on life: sin and redemption, prayer and suffering, love and justice and the nature and ministry of Jesus, with Bible passages as stimulation to thought.
Our society often only seems to acknowledge the importance of activities which can have their impact directly and quantitatively measured. There is no easily measurable outcome from an assembly beyond perhaps the buzz of conversation for the rest of the day or the reality of minor celebrity for a student who has contributed. I am nonetheless sure that whole-school assemblies serve a useful purpose that cannot be achieved in other ways; the shared experiences they produce are part of the scaffolding that supports and builds our school community and the thoughts they provoke in us may endure for a lifetime.