Assemblies during Covid: Breaking with tradition

Written by: Emma Gray | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Should the ‘build back better’ ethos that many schools have adopted during the Covid pandemic see a new approach to assembly time? Headteacher Emma Gray offers some practical reflections

Current government guidance surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic states that: “Schools should avoid large gatherings such as assemblies or collective worship with more than one group.” (DfE, 2020)

So, with whole-school assemblies now no longer possible, many schools are having to look for alternative ways to enrich learning experiences for younger pupils in their school – but could the need to think more creatively about what we do with “assembly time” be another “build back better” element of the pandemic?

School assemblies are part of a very long tradition in this country. Assemblies are an integral part of a school’s individual culture, they form part of the fabric that underpins a school’s character and personality, and they allow children, staff and visitors who are a part of each assembly to feel united and part of something bigger than themselves.

Coming together regularly as a whole school also provides scope for younger children to look outside of and beyond their smaller peer group circles. In times of difficulty, it is the spirit of togetherness and the ability to communicate shared messages, goals and opportunities that reinforce positivity, while maintaining consistency and boosting confidence for us all.

The pandemic has (for now) put an end to those traditions. However, do we now find ourselves in a position to create change, possibly for the better? The removal of school assemblies means that schools are now charged with filling that “gap” – but in a way that is meaningful and enriching for pupils.

Of course, educators are currently looking at all aspects of their practice with a fresh pair of eyes – assemblies, remote learning, staff cover requirements, pupil engagement, diversifying the school timetable, homework, extra-curricular activities, and school trips.

Looking at how we operate effectively, but from a new perspective, can be very enlightening indeed.

So, thinking about assemblies, we can all agree that young children need diversity in their school day, outside of the usual classroom-based lessons. As heads, we have a duty to lead the school in providing a plethora of diverse and stimulating learning experiences for all children. So here follows some of my thoughts on how we can “build back better” with our approach to assemblies.

Assemblies: New perspectives

Some schools have been very clever and organised when it comes to their assemblies by retaining only the important parts (the shared messaging, the confidence instilled from the leadership team, the celebration of good news stories), and sharing these in different ways. Some assemblies are being delivered outside in the open – with plenty of surrounding space – and some in smaller more intimate sessions building stronger relationships between all involved.

Likewise, some schools are turning to technology to deliver whole school events. In this case, avoiding the need to organise large groups of students into a school hall setting saves a great deal of time, yet the message is still delivered quickly and effectively.

But technology is not always the answer. For example, celebration assemblies had become popular for schools in recent years, but doing this remotely over a screen, singling individual children out, feels uncomfortable for some teachers.

Certainly, celebrating success should be a core part of what we do as school leaders, but only in a supportive pastoral environment, where effort, risk-taking and having a go are celebrated in equal measure.

Reinforcing the positives

Young children need support and diversity in their school day to maximise their wellbeing and their learning and development opportunities. For many schools, celebrating the great outdoors is a good place to start when looking for activities to replace assembly time, as being outside in the fresh air, surrounded by nature, reinforces the permanence of the positives in life.

While reviewing the structure of the day in line with the Covid landscape, some schools have begun to recognise just how much physical time was used to orchestrate a traditional assembly. Time involved in travelling to the assembly hall in large groups, lining up, waiting to enter – and that is all before listening to the core part of the assembly. Then you have the transition time post-assembly to get back to class in an orderly fashion. Yet prior to the pandemic, the likelihood is, most schools would not have questioned the validity of using so much time for that purpose.

At my school, we have used the daily assembly slot to provide more enrichment opportunities to the children alongside some additional curriculum content in core skill areas that they may have missed out on due to Covid. This mix of enrichment time, such as taking an afternoon woodland walk, or participating in some yoga balanced with some handwriting and times tables fluency, seems to be a worthwhile use of time in this current climate.

Opportunity for enrichment

Creating more enrichment activities also changes the dynamics of the everyday learning experience for children, in a positive and stimulating way. Introducing ideas such as the study of natural history, having extra fun in the school adventure playground, enjoying remote cooking workshops, learning public speaking skills, learning about the history of art, or indeed brushing up on core skills such as vocabulary, can be hugely beneficial as children continue to get to grips with their return to school life.

Most importantly, making changes like this to the usual timetable will not negatively impact the school day because there is time and space available to implement fresh ideas. Core messaging delivered more efficiently in remote assemblies during form times or at other times of the day also means that pupils do not miss important communications but, at the same time, greater value is being added to their school day.

Continue to challenge the status quo

In the past, some experts have suggested that assemblies are out of date and needed a revamp. Whether or not this has any merit is not really the point, what is important is our ability to flex and adapt to the changing landscape and to make the right decisions for our own school community.

The concept of assembly, being a part of a collective experience and seeing yourself in the bigger picture are always going to be important to schools. However, not all assembly sessions were adding value for pupils or staff. The “babysitting” of a big group cannot now take place, so it is for schools to use that time for pupil and staff wellbeing in a better and more creative way.

If the restrictions are lifted, the chances are many schools will continue with the innovative practice they have introduced during these extraordinary times and will be more inclined to question why and how they do things. If the answer is “because we always have”, it may be the right time to do something else…

  • Emma Gray is headteacher at St Margaret’s Junior School in Hertfordshire, an independent day and boarding school for pupils aged three to 18.

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