KEGS Assemblies: Ethos, Aspirations, Spirit

Screen shot 2012-12-29 at 01.17.38
Students settle, Y7&8 on the floor, Sixth Form in the Balcony, waiting for the book.

Bang!! Bang!! Bang!!  (The hymn book is struck three times by Mr Carter.)

“Please stand”.  900 students rise to their feet.
The two Deputies and I swoosh up the steps, gowns billowing, to take our places on the stage.
“Thank you; Please sit down….”

This piece of theatre begins each one of our whole-school assemblies that run five times a fortnight.  Our hall has the capacity (just) to squeeze in the whole school and we take full advantage.  For me, the aspirational, spirited, learning ethos that permeates my school is the key to its success and arguably assemblies are the key element in reinforcing that ethos week in, week out.  They are a routine part of school life, yet each one feels special.

The main benefit from our assemblies is the vertical modelling.  From the very first day when new students arrive in the school, they have models to look up to. This is quite literally true as Y13s including all the prefects, sit on the stage. Every time we present a certificate or a badge, every time a Sixth Former leads assembly, the younger students are watching, with some degree of awe.  It is hugely powerful.  All of our students’ main achievements are celebrated in whole-school assemblies – ‘Gold Certificates’ awarded to those with exceptional ‘effort grades’ in our internal reports;  Mentoring badges; Duke of Edinburgh Awards; ABRSM Grade certificates; Olympiad certificates, trophies from competitions and so on.  The younger students see the oldest students taking achievement seriously and aspire to join them. Every year, when we appoint Y13s to leadership roles, they talk about how much they’ve wanted it ever since Year 7 when they sat in assembly looking up in awe, thinking ‘one day, that could be me’.

It works in reverse too; the Y7s also gain their certificates in whole-school assemblies and the power of receiving applause from the whole school is hugely rewarding.

The second key benefit, is that our core values can be established, communicated and celebrated continually.  At KEGS, part of our core purpose is to develop students as ‘principled global citizens’; this term our assemblies have reinforced this strongly including the following:

  • A report-back from our students’ trip to our partner school in Kenya, focusing on the hardship they face each day and the value they place on Education. This linked to a visit and speech from the leader of New Hope Orphanage outside Nairobi, another KEGS partnership.
  • A series of short speeches from both candidates in our mock US Presidential Election, both before the election and after the declaration. (Obama won by a landslide – thankfully!)
  • An impassioned plea for us all to support the Christian Aid Tax Justice Campaign from a student who then set up a whole-school petition to present to our local MP.
  • A personal take on Black History and Culture by three students in Y11-12 taking in Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Will Smith and George-the-Poet
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The KEGS US Presidential Election; Three boys present Black History and Culture
  • Philosophy Day presentation featuring a staged dialogue by Y13 students about the absolute nature of moral values, right and wrong with legal and religious interpretations.
  • A personal fund-raising speech from a Y13 student who suffered from a very serious stammer, now virtually fully recovered after treatment from the Michael Palin Centre.
  • The student Christian group Emerge, presenting Advent Conspiracy, a powerful message about giving time and giving to charity as an alternative to the consumer orgy of Christmas presents.

We’ve also enjoyed report-backs from trips to China, World Challenge, CERN/UN in Geneva, Young Engineers, Young Enterprise… and the list goes on.  The majority of these student assembly presentations originate with a student asking for a slot – they come to us, not the other way around. We then work with them to ensure they keep to time and don’t get carried away with the ‘banter’ component – there is always pressure to be funny, and we work with students to ensure that sincerity comes first.

We also have multiple voices from members of staff and visitors, talking to students.  This term we had a superb visit from Vic Goddard, Head at Passmores, urging students to put themselves on the line in all that they seek to achieve. A great message from an inspiring man.

Inspiring speeches: Vic Goddard and our own Barack Obama: Y11, Theo Demolder
Inspiring speeches: Vic Goddard and our own Barack Obama: Y11, Theo Demolder

We’ve also had staff-led assemblies on Health and Safety (lessons from Hillsborough, Zeebrugge and Kings Cross Fire disasters,), the Growth Mindset, Mental Health, the Hajj and Democracy and I’ve contributed by sharing my personal remembrance story and by showing this fabulous short film Merci!

In addition to the planned input, the routine assembly notices project our ethos in many ways. They amount to more than the information about what is happening – they tell everyone what we value and what is possible.  Crucially, the younger students hear all about UCAS and careers talks way before they need to  – but it sets their sights high from the start.  Here is one set collected from just one very typical, regular assembly:

  • The John Dee Society resumes tomorrow at 4pm.  Max (Y12) will be discussing the question ‘To what extent has Germany influenced Western culture?”
  • Could Year 12s who so kindly signed up to help with prospective Sixth Form tours convene at 2.40: Harrison (School Captain)
  • The French Exchange deadline is fast approaching; don’t miss this fantastic opportunity.
  • Origami club runs this lunchtime.
  • “Would you like to win fantastic prizes? Would you like to help people? Then head to the canteen at lunch for the  7M LEPRA raffle.”
  • There will be an important meeting for all pupils going on the February ski trip at breaktime today
  • Mr Pattenden’s essay club meets today in the library at 3.45pm
  • Reminder to train users: please show courtesy to students from other schools and members of the public.

Another key ingredient of the ‘KEGS Spirit’ is conveyed by our much-loved Match Reports.  Here is a sample from a 1st XI Football match this term:

“Jewers again contributed, his slender figure looping a tempting ball like a solemn fisherman casting his rod during a hot summer’s day on the River Chelmer…”
“Jewers immediately followed up using his Stalingrad sniper scope vision to ping the ball home from the half-way line…”
“Joe ‘The Pace’ Claridge grabbed a deserved sixth for KEGS, with a left foot rocket to condemn the home team to a slow and solemn trudge back…”

Match Reports cover all sports including Chess and have also featured Maths competitions, Quizzes, MUN events and Legal Debates.  The students’ goal is to tell the story in a witty style and to get their in-jokes into the report unnoticed by the staff censors…. but we are vigilant.  It is an established part of school life that Match Reports are a challenge in themselves; everyone loves them.

Finally, it should be stressed that, whilst KEGS is not a faith school, we do hold regular faith-based assemblies including Christian assemblies on Fridays where we sing hymns and say The Lord’s Prayer.  This is a traditional aspect of school life that many value, even if, like me, they are atheists or members of other faiths.  There is nothing like hearing nearly 1000 people singing ‘ Abide with Me’ at our Remembrance service or ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ at Christmas; I don’t believe there is a secular equivalent that comes close.  Communal singing generates a very special atmosphere that is spiritual for all of us, regardless of our beliefs.  At the end of the Easter and summer terms we sing ‘Jerusalem.’  It is wonderful and the experience stays in students’ hearts long after they have left.

Ben plays the organ for our Friday hymns.
Y13 student Ben plays the organ for our Friday hymns.

I’ve delivered an assembly on how I experience spirituality as an atheist. I am open about it and other members of staff are open about their faith.  In providing a multi-faith platform we model more than tolerance – it is genuine respect.

Assemblies are a frenetic 15 minutes as we struggle to cram everything in but, when they are over, the no-nonsense command is always the same.

“..lead out in the usual way…”

Once a fortnight we have assemblies in Houses; they have a different function, whipping up House Spirit and fuelling the House competition that runs all year.  They too have a role in shaping our ethos but they are deliberately not focusing on academic achievement.   What would we do if we couldn’t fit the whole school in the hall?  I would divide the school in half vertically and run the same assembly twice.  It is the vertical aspect combined with the aspirational content that makes the difference. I would try to export this to any school…. once you have the ethos you want, this is the way to reinforce it year on year.

The leaders of Strutt House celebrate after winning the prestigious House Cup.
The leaders of Strutt House celebrate after winning the prestigious House Cup.


  1. Tom, I really enjoyed reading this, as Deputy Head leading Whole School assemblies I’m constantly looking for ways to ensure they are engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking, and broadening the thoughts and minds of our young people. A tough gig when you consider well-researched attention spans, especially those of young children.

    Personally, bringing the whole school together is something I’m most proud of. We are a community and when parents and grandparents join us in celebrating their child’s or grandchild’s achievements – it’s back of the neck hair raising stuff. Younger age children chasing the role-models of older students is hugely powerful – there’s so much more to be done in this area I feel.

    I would be interested in KEGS students presenting to children in our school, particularly reports back from partnerships abroad, Kenya, Nairobi, China etc. Do you have students interested in doing this?


  2. Good to hear there is some hymn-singing again, Tom. When the previous Director of Music, Mr Sparrow, departed they came to a bit of a halt since we were organ-less. What a relief you have such passion for the greatest traditions of our honorable and gentlemanlike house.

    All the best to you and to all at the dear old place,

    Dan Barnes-Davies
    Alum & churchman


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