Category Archives: Education

The day I stayed out of School Assembly

Every morning at school, we’d file into the main hall for Assembly, the youngest boys in the front rows, the oldest at the back. After the Upper Sixth Form and Lower Sixth Form boys had taken their places, members of the teaching staff would file in via the walkway in the centre of the room, between the rows of chairs and thence onto the stage, thus facing the assembled ‘congregation’. Finally, the headmaster would take his place on the platform, mounting the steps to the left and taking a central position, rather like a priest.

This daily ritual would include the often passionate singing of wonderful Welsh hymns, accompanied by the powerful school organ, a memory I treasure and something I’ll never forget. Here’s one of my favourite hymns, sung by the Morriston Orpheus Choir.

It was fundamentally a religious ceremony, incorporating a Bible reading and prayers. Needless to say, most of the hymns had religious content. The whole process would usually end with the singing of another rousing Welsh language hymn – and then the boys would file out again and prepare for lessons. This was back in the 1960s. It was taken for granted that everyone had an identical Christian faith, apart from one group: Roman Catholics were allowed to be absent and stay in a designated room for the duration of Assembly. There was no room for scepticism.

And, for all I know, this procedure still goes on at what was then the boys-only Caerphilly Grammar-Technical School but is now the coeducational (mixed sex) comprehensive, St Martins School.

I remember it all so well. But I also remember my own epiphany moment when I decided that there was no God. Alongside lessons in Biology, Chemistry and Physics that offered rational explanations for so many aspects of existence – including Darwin‘s theory of evolution, complex chemical theories and Einstein‘s theory of relativity, none of which bore any relation to anything in the Bible – I was expected to believe in what I came to regard as nonsensical cant. I was also taught Religious Education, during which Bible stories were presented as historical fact.

And one day I decided that I wasn’t going to take part in Assembly anymore. My hard-working father had died suddenly of a severe brain infection at the age of 38. I was fourteen and my younger brother seven years of age. Thus my mother was left to bring up two young boys on her own. I did have time to pray for my Dad’s recovery, even though I was already quite sceptical about the existence of a god. But clearly the prayers I’d said when Dad was on his death bed in hospital were a meaningless gesture.

I’d mused about the idea for some time; but I remember the very point in the very road where I experienced the realisation that I’d been hoodwinked – like a reverse revelation. All those school assemblies, all the beautiful hymns, all those Sunday school attendances at St Catherine’s (recently rebuilt), reading the gospels religiously and saying all those prayers – it was all just a waste of time. Furthermore, I felt that I’d been brainwashed. Yet daily attendance at school assembly was compulsory.

Being in that hall every morning and going through such a meaningless ceremony began to feel like I was having salt rubbed into my wound. As I saw it, I was being forced to thank God for taking away my beloved Dad. I fairly quickly concluded that there was no god – and that even if there had been, he wouldn’t deserve any praise from me. As far as I was concerned, I had every right to absent myself from Assembly. So, one morning, that’s what I did. I stayed in my classroom … aware that my absence would bring the full weight of school discipline crashing down on my head.

By the way, I was delighted to read, last week, that a couple in Burford, West Oxfordshire, had won a concession by Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST) after challenging their policy of collective compulsory worship.

Lee and Lizanne Harris challenged compulsory collective worship in school assembly on human rights grounds. They’d discovered that their children’s school insisted that their kids pray and watch re-enactments of Bible scenes during assemblies at academy school Burford Primary School, despite the school’s having no religious character. Bible stories were presented as fact. In addition, their children were made to attend past school leavers’ ceremonies held in a local church, during which students were presented with a bible as a ‘guide to life.’

Backed by Humanists UK, the couple withdrew their application for judicial review after ODST agreed to provide “a meaningful alternative assembly of equal educational worth for all pupils withdrawn from compulsory prayers”.

As soon as it was discovered I had stayed out of Assembly I was given a severe reprimand by my form master – but, much more dramatically, I was sent to the Headmaster’s office. Actually, from what I recall Mr Bell-Jones (left) gave me quite a mild talking-to. But he did leave me in no doubt that I’d get into severe hot water if I repeated my protest. So I never did.

But my opinion hasn’t changed after all these years, and I’m not in such a small minority anymore. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, over half – 53% – of all UK adults describe themselves as having no religious affiliation, up from 48% in 2015. The latest figure is the highest since the BSA survey began tracking religious affiliation in 1983, when 31% said they had no religion.

With these figures in mind, I wonder how much compulsory worship is still in operation in UK schools currently.

I pat myself on the back for having stayed out of Assembly that morning. I feel just as strongly that no religion should be forced on any child. What’s more I had no hesitation in completely agreeing with Stephen Fry‘s sentiments around the notion of meeting God, in his memorable interview with the late Gay Byrne.

 

 

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Is Ready To Learn the antidote to the scourge of misbehaviour in schools?

My brief experience as a part-time secondary school teacher was nothing if not memorable – and not altogether in a good way.

I was transported back to that time recently by a brilliant six-part BBC 2 documentary series called, with commendable brevity, School.

I started in the first week of the new millennium. Business at my micro-ad. agency had been going through a rather prolonged lean spell. I was always happy to ride the downturns and enjoy the upturns, but then I saw the ad. for a part-time English teacher at my local college for 15-18 year olds. A bit of extra cash for passing on my knowledge of Shakespeare, poetry and novels sounded like a win-win situation, so I thought “Why not?”

I was soon to find out the answer to that question.

After a week or so’s honeymoon period, my typical day became a Whitehall farce of (for instance) writing business documents and lesson plans in the morning, with maybe an hour or two of teaching squeezed in, followed by frantic catch-up advertising client calls and emails in mid-afternoon, with maybe a staff meeting on GCSE progress and overseeing some detention later the same day. Yes, it was hectic; but actually once I settled into a kind of chaotic rhythm, I started to feel it might be do-able.

Before long, though, I began increasingly to experience a factor I hadn’t really budgeted for: misbehaviour. My sons, both former pupils at the school, had warned me that “they’ll make mincemeat out of you”. They were so right. After a honeymoon period of about a fortnight, things started to get fractious.

It began with talking whilst I was talking; progressed to various pupils standing up and walking around; and ended up with some students walking out of class altogether, fighting, throwing things at each other and sometimes even more extreme activities. For instance, in the lowest ability class that I took, a stranger would occasionally appear outside the window of the classroom and one of my students would dash to the doorway and run through the corridor to meet him; I gathered from the other students that this was to do with exchanging drugs. There were frequent instances of boy:girl physical embraces, etc.; chairs were thrown on a few occasions; and then there was the memorable moment when smoke appeared at the back of the the class and I discovered that a boy had set fire to one of his (very old) trainers …

As someone whose vocal chords were toughened on the terraces of Ninian Park during my own formative years in supporting Cardiff City (alas, I am rarely able to see them live nowadays), I had no problem in raising my voice and maintaining high volume instructions and threats during the course of this behaviour. Senior teachers would frequently come into my classroom to assist in restoring order. But it soon became clear to me that even the most experienced staff members often had difficulty in coping with riotous situations. At that time, no physical contact between teachers and staff was allowed. So to keep a student from leaving the classroom involved pressing my foot against the bottom of the door to prevent it from being opened. In my day, I would have received a smack across the head if I had shown such a level of disobedience.

The reasons for bad behaviour in the classroom are very many and very varied; and they include both personal and social factors. The personal qualities and previous experience of the teacher are obviously a key influence; the ethos of a particular year group will often determine the nature and level of the disruption; and the psychological profiles – including their home environments – of individual students in a classroom is also a major factor. But whatever the reasons for an outbreak of bad behaviour, its effect on learning outcomes is critical. Frustratingly, I found that, on enquiring on a one-to-one basis, quite a few students who were disruptive really wanted to learn, but behaved badly only because they were pressurised into it by some of their peers.

I did take on board advice from other members of staff. There are some well-known techniques and classroom management strategies that can sometimes assist with maintaining a calm environment and keeping students focused. There is a whole seam of literature offering advice on keeping order. But the theory is all very fine: most often at the chalkface events can quickly prove that there are many exceptions to the rules. An ink pellet which hit the screen of my laptop as I was using it to project images from the First World War, teaching poetry, was the last straw and I resigned soon after.

But seeing the Ready To Learn system in action in the recent BBC2 documentary gave me real hope that there may be a way to solve this difficult problem …

Like many great ideas, it’s very simple. After just two instances of disruptive behaviour, students are sent to an “isolation room”, where they stay for a whole day, plus an hour after the school closes. As the documentary illustrated, it’s very boring. Talking or other bad behaviour is marked on a wallchart. After a given number of further transgressions the fixed system results in a call to the pupil’s home and may ultimately result in exclusion from the school. As the documentary also illustrated, the system is very effective. This is backed up by numerous reports available on the internet. Clear, consistent boundaries and the certainty of known sanctions seem to be the answer to much of the great scourge of bad behaviour in our schools.

Disruptive behaviour is the elephant in the classroom. It is rarely talked about in parliament, which focuses on “more important”, higher level considerations such as budgets and standards. Crime on the streets, violence in hospitals, domestic abuse – all these and other similar issues attract a goodly share of attention from the powers-that-be.

But bad behaviour in the classroom stunts the life chances of very many kids. It’s time for the education authorities to give this issue more attention. I hope they are ready to learn from the experiences of those schools that are implementing this system and will ensure its use becomes a requirement, rather than a very bright idea taken up by only a selection of enlightened schools.

 

 

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