Ideas for inclusive assemblies
Humanists endorse the educational value of school assemblies and their role in supporting shared values and the school community and ethos, but think that the requirements for collective worship (as it is known in England and Wales) and religious observance (as it is known in Scotland) discriminate in favour of religion.
School assemblies can and should include the whole school community. Many teachers share this view and, while they do not wish to lead worship or observance, would be happy to contribute to assemblies which inspired their pupils to lead good lives or to think deeply about moral issues. This briefing is intended to help them. Assemblies that build on the common ground of our humanity can have an important role to play in inclusive Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development and education for Citizenship.
Some General Points
The legal requirement in England and Wales
The legal requirement for collective worship in English and Welsh schools with no religious character to be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ is open to interpretation. It certainly means that a substantial minority (up to 49%) need not be Christian at all, and the others can be ‘broadly Christian’ – which entails relating to the traditions of Christian belief and according a special status to Jesus Christ (Circular 1/94 in England/Circular 10/94 in Wales). This too is interpretable, but humanist teachers might prefer to concentrate their efforts on the 49% that do not have to be Christian.
Ofsted (in England) and Estyn (in Wales)
Ofsted (in England) and Estyn (in Wales) offer guidance to inspectors that leans heavily on Circular 1/94 (in England) and Circular 10/94 (in Wales) and defines both ‘Christian’ and ‘worship’ fairly narrowly, though both acknowledge that ‘worship may not be judged to fulfil statutory requirements but could still be observed to make a powerful contribution to spiritual, moral , social and cultural development’ (Ofsted notes on inspecting collective worship, 1995, and Estyn guidance, 2000). There is much in Ofsted and Estyn guidance that humanist teachers would endorse, though humanists would substitute ‘assembly’ where they use ‘collective worship’: there should be opportunities for pupils to ‘learn about and explore different values, beliefs and views, to develop and express their own’ (Ofsted, 1995); collective worship ‘encourages pupils to explore questions about meaning and purpose, values and beliefs’ (Ofsted, 1995) and should ‘challenge and enrich their experience’ and ‘contain clear messages which are both relevant and meaningful’ (Estyn, 2000). ‘Collective worship develops community spirit, promotes a common ethos and shared values, and reinforces positive attitudes.’ (Estyn, 2 000).
Praying should always be voluntary – a short silence, in which pupils can reflect on the theme, or pray if they wish, is recommended by many writers of assembly material, some SACREs, and the BHA. A voluntary prayer can fulfil some of your ‘worship’ obligations – but you need to work out an effective and inclusive way (not ‘Amen’) to end the silence and finish the assembly in a strong and positive manner.
Planning: Year and Key Stage assemblies are lawful and enable better targeted material. Hymns are not obligatory, and there are many good substitutes if you still want music in an assembly. If you want pupils to remember what you say, it is worth getting notices out of the way first or delivering them in another way.
Topics and themes
‘The themes of assembly are the great human themes: courage, achievement, love, compassion, wonder, imagination, joy, tragedy, hope, responsibility, humanitarian endeavour, and the mystery of existence. Its resources are human greatness, the commemoration of great lives, great events, great achievements – as well as the struggles and hopes and opportunities of contemporary women and men. The assembly should be attractive, positive, encouraging and inspiring.’
— Dr James Hemming, educational psychologist and BHA Vice-President.
- Art and music can contribute to the spiritual dimension and demonstrate human creativity and the ability to share with and inspire others. Just to look or listen with an introduction from an enthusiast can be enough.
- The natural world is an excellent theme – its wonder, interdependence, and co-operation. Pictures or objects (e.g. fossils) can provoke awe and wonder – or just look out of the window or listen to natural sounds outside.
- Poetry and prose – fiction and non-fiction – your favourites. Or ask the English department for ideas for particular themes.
- Anecdotes from your own experience, especially your school days, can be enthralling for pupils, who benefit from reminders that teachers have lives outside school and were once young (but make sure you have a point to make).
- The daily news can be a rich source of assembly themes. Good news about human achievements can inspire students. Events can stimulate moral questions and raise issues of rights and responsibilities. If you do need a last-minute theme, take the front page of a daily paper, choose a story from it, outline the facts, read extracts, and highlight some moral questions, or extrapolate from the issues involved to wonder what will have changed in, say, 20 years’ time when pupils will have adult responsibilities.
- Shared human values – see the Golden Rule poster, or look at some of the humanist perspectives documents for some topical ideas.
- What sort of person do you want to be? Kind / unkind? Trustworthy and respected / dishonest and disliked ?… What would you like to be remembered for towards the end of your life?
- Pupils can lead excellent assemblies. Each set of pupils due to lead one will need a teacher to brief them, be available for guidance and rehearsals, and be there on the day to support them.
- Visitors can be refreshing, but need to be well briefed, and should be vetted for suitability – usually a role for the Head. For example, evangelical groups that proselytise to children and young people should not be invited to deliver assemblies.
- Days to remember: There are plenty of non-religious events to mark in assemblies. The anniversaries of famous people’s births or deaths, or of historical events, can be used to introduce inspirational stories or figures who otherwise would remain unknown to your pupils. You can use birthdays, yours or someone else’s , or the school’s , to reflect on new beginnings, time passing, or ageing.
- Festivals: Many Christian festivals adopted earlier pagan or seasonal events, and many people participate in a range of cultural and religious festivals. This can be interesting to explore in assemblies.
- Events: Astronomical events such as eclipses and comets, and natural events such as volcanoes, can inspire awe and wonder, both at the size and power of nature and at our growing understanding of natural phenomena.
- Charity and awareness days: Almost every day of the year has been adopted by a charity or awareness raising group which would be only too glad to provide information about themselves.
Further Reading and Resources
Collective worship – a statement of the current legal position and your rights.
Some SACREs have published very useful guidance on inclusive assemblies.
For secondary assemblies:
The Secondary Assembly – a mixed bag but some useful ideas. Often involving student participation, mostly non-religious (though refers to ‘the created world’ in an otherwise mostly non-religious section). Uses reflection as a response to the readings rather than prayer. (£ subscription)
The Humanist Anthology – An excellent source of quotations and humanist thought from Confucius and the Ancient Greeks to today. An excellent source of quotations and inspirational readings edited by Margaret Knight and revised by Jim Herrick.
Thinkers Guide to Life – brief quotations from great thinkers, arranged thematically. Useful ‘thoughts for the day’. Edited by Marilyn Mason.
Seasons of Life – prose and poetry reflections on life, time passing, nature, ideals, love, marriage, children, death. Good for reading aloud. Compiled by Nigel Collins.
Humanism for Inquiring Minds (6th edition) – Any school that teaches religion should ensure that teaching is objective, fair, and balanced – which means including non-religious worldviews. Geared to Key Stage Four students this book is designed for young people to engage with Humanism as a non-religious positive lifestance. By Barbara Smoker.
For primary assemblies:
Aesop’s Fables, folk and fairy tales, and popular children’s stories often contain moral ideas that can be drawn out – on fairness, justice, kindness, mutual respect. Even familiar stories can be given a fresh angle with appropriate questions or comments.
Robert Fisher Stories for Thinking (Nash Pollock ISBN 1 898 255 09 1) – 30 multi-cultural stories for 7-11 year olds with discussion plans and thinking activities and a useful chapter for teachers introducing the idea of philosophy for children. Varied and interesting stories with some excellent discussion questions on topics such as happiness, anger, beauty, personal identity. Also by Robert Fisher and worth looking at: Poems for Thinking; Games for Thinking; Pictures for Thinking .
The Primary Assembly – another mixed bag but some useful ideas. (£ subscription).
Margaret Goldthorpe and Lucy Nutt Assemblies to teach Golden Rules (Learning Development Aids, ISBN 1 85503 310 0) – these assemblies convey an inclusive and universal morality in a lively, positive and involving way, through story, anecdote, activity and pupil participation (some demanding a bit of preparation). Rules / topics are: Look after property; Be kind and helpful; Listen; Be gentle; Be honest; Work hard. Each rule is returned to several times in a variety of guises and every assembly ends with a “thought for the day” or an optional prayer. Bible references are given, but are optional too.
Three humanist assemblies for primary schools.
Days to Remember
Chinese New Year ( www.new-year.co.uk/chinese )
National Storytelling Week at the end of the month
1st New Year
8th Death of Galileo
9th Simone de Beauvoir’s birthday
12th Martin Luther King’s birthday
17th Benjamin Franklin’s birthday
19th James Watt’s birthday
Auguste Comte’s birthday
22nd Francis Bacon’s (philosopher and scientist) birthday
25th Burns Night (Scotland)
29th Thomas Paine‘s birthday
Mardi Gras – Pancake Day
RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch www.rspb.org.uk
2nd Death of Bertrand Russell
8th Ruskin’s birthday
11th Nelson Mandela released from prison, 1990
12th Charles Darwin‘s birthday
Death of Immanuel Kant
14th Death of Julian Huxley
15th Jeremy Bentham‘s birthday
16th Giordano Bruno burned as a heretic
22nd Birthday of Francis Bacon, scientist and philosopher
3rd William Godwin’s birthday
7th Wordsworth’s birthday
8th International Women’s Day
9th Commonwealth Day
14th Death of Karl Marx
Albert Einstein’s birthday
21st Spring Equinox
International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
22nd World Water Day
25th Shelley expelled from Oxford University for publishing The Necessity of Atheism
31st Birth of Descartes
Freedom Day ( South Africa )
7th World Health Day
11th Death of Primo Levi
12th Galileo imprisoned by the Inquisition, 1633
13th Thomas Jefferson’s birthday
15th Death of Sartre
16th Death of Simone de Beauvoir
18th Death of Einstein
19th Death of Charles Darwin
22nd Immanuel Kant’s birthday
World Day for Water
23rd Death of Wordsworth
24th World Day for Laboratory Animals
26th Birthday of Marcus Aurelius
Birthday of Leonardo da Vinci
27th Mary Wollstoncraft‘s birthday
International Dawn Chorus Day http://www.wildsong.co.uk/dawnchorus1.html
1st May Day / International Labour Day
3rd World Press Freedom Day
4th T H Huxley‘s birthday 5th Karl Marx ‘ s birthday
NSPCC Children’s Day
7th Sigmund Freud‘s birthday
David Hume‘s birthday
8th International Red Cross and Crescent Day
Death of John Stuart Mill
9th Europe Day
14th World Fair Trade Day www.fairtrade.org.uk
15th Intern ational Conscientious Objectors ‘ Day
Intern ational Day of Families
18th Bertrand Russell‘s birthday
mid-May Be Nice to Nettles Week www.workingwithwildlife.co.uk and www.nettles.org.uk
20th John Stuart Mill‘s birthday
21st Thomas Paine‘s Rights of Man banned, 1792
28th Anniversary of the founding of Amnesty Internationa l
30th Death of Voltaire
Dragon Boat Festival (Chinese)
First week Green Week – see www.yptenc.org.uk for ideas for making your school greener
2nd Thomas Hardy’s Birthday
5th World Environment Day
6th Death of Jeremy Bentham
11th World Population Day
12th Anne Frank Day
World Day Against Child Labour – see www.ilo.org for information about childlabour and children’s rights, or www.unicef.org or www.endchildexploitation.org.uk
mid-June International Refugee Day and Refugee Week www.refugeeweek.org.uk
21st Longest Day – Midsummer
Intern ational Humanist Day
Jean-Paul Sartre’s birthday
22nd Galileo condemned, 1633
Death of Julian Huxley
25th George Orwell’s birthday
27th Death of A. J. Ayer
28th Rousseau’s birthday
4th Independence Day, USA
8th Shelley drowned at sea
10th Anniversary of the Scopes trial in 2005 – more about it here.
11th World Population Day
14th Emmeline Pankhurst’s birthday
18th Nelson Mandela’s birthday
21st Death of Robert G Ingersoll
27th Anniversary of the excommunication of Spinoza (350th in 2006)
UN International Day of Peace
World Maritime Day
8th International Literacy Day
10th Death of Mary Wollstonecraft
11th – 19th Red Squirrel Week. See www.wildlifetrust.org.uk.
11th World Trade Centre , New York , destroyed, 2001 13th Death of Montaigne
15th Battle of Britain Day
21st H G Wells’ birthday
21st-23rd Autumn Equinox.
28th Confucius’ birthday, 551BCE
National Poetry Day
End of British Summer Time
World Habitat Day
Columbus Day (USA)
The People ‘ s Charter 1839 demands the vote for adult males
Inside Justice Week
2nd World Farm Animals’ Day
5th International Teachers’ Day
10th Women’s suffrage movement founded, 1903
14th Death of Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek
17th International Day for the Eradication of Poverty
21st Trafalgar Day
24th United Nations Day
29th Make a Difference Day http://www.csv.org.uk/difference
31st Keats ‘ birthday
2nd Anniversary of the founding of the Samaritans
3rd Death of Harriet Taylor Mill
4th UNESCO Day
5th Guy Fawkes’ Night
9th Fall of Berlin Wall, 1989
11th or nearest Sunday
14th Jawarhalal Nehru‘s birthday
16th International Day for Tolerance
18th Pierre Bayle’s birthday
20th Universal Children’s Day (UNICEF)
21st Voltaire‘s birthday
World Television Day
UNESCO Philosophy Day
22nd George Eliot‘s birthday
24th Evolution Day – anniversary of the publication of Darwin’ s The Origin of Species
28th Friedrich Engels’ birthday
World Aids Day www.worldaidsday.org
1st Rosa Parks arrested for challenging segregation on Alabama buses, 1955 http://www.rosaparks.org
2nd International Day for the Abolition of Slavery
4th Death of Hobbes
5th Internataional Volunteer Day
10th Human Rights Day
12th Erasmus Darwin ‘ s birthday
17th Beethoven ‘ s birthday
22nd Shortest Day