A School Built on Ethos, by James Handscombe

Why I read it 

When I was Head of Sixth Form, I took assembly most weeks, either for Year 12, Year 13, or both together. I viewed the assembly preparation and delivery as an art form – a chance to consider an important message, and then to work hard to encase it in authenticity, sincerity, exposure to knowledge and the world, and the values we wanted to promote. For the delivery, I set myself the silly target of imagining that each assembly would be filmed and put on the TED website – it had to be good enough for that standard. Whether I ever achieved my goals, I’m not sure, but my conviction was and is, that assemblies are one of the most vital tools we have to build culture and values within our schools. When I saw that James Handscombe had written this book, I couldn’t believe my luck!

In summary

James is the Principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form, and this book details the journey he and the school took from their inception, to how they created and sustained their desired culture and values. When I bought the book, I expected a practical guide to assemblies. What I got was far greater. James discusses how assemblies were used with thought and purpose to convey messages, from their values as a ‘community of scholars’, to dealing with culturally sensitive issues on a societal level. He is honest about how the school ethos developed, which includes successes and failures, exploring how changes in student numbers and personnel means that culture doesn’t stand still – one has to keep honing.

But what I didn’t expect was the bank of assembly transcripts (yes, transcripts!) from the last few years. They are beautifully crafted, full of wisdom, knowledge, culture, and authenticity. Rather than bolting these on at the end, the assemblies are included chronologically, as the story of the school unfolds over time.

Key takeaways

  1. Learning is amazing – James notes that some early feedback about his assemblies was that he uses the phrase ‘learning is amazing’ often. There are hundreds of ideas and examples in the book, but it essentially boils down to that phrase; show the students your love of, and commitment to, learning, and you will foster the same in them.
  2. Different benefits and uses of assemblies – explain the behaviours we desire, broaden cultural understanding, make references to things that students can look up later, set challenges, teach things, embrace learning, have fun, build culture and ethos. The book is dedicated to discussing why these are all important, and the transcripts are a brilliant model for the reader.
  3. Books – Harris Westminster are big believers in mentioning, and recommending books and poets throughout their assemblies. Handscombe says ‘we are recommending, opening doors, navigating library shelves, and show that there is always more – more to read about, more to think about’.
  4. Culture isn’t permanent and communities don’t happen automatically – there is much reflection about how assemblies are a fantastic building block for culture and ethos – but the job is never ‘done’. As things move on, the school must continually re-evaluate its communication and ethos. James is particularly honest about how, as the school grew, they had to adapt their message, and that they didn’t always anticipate cultural shifts that occurred. Useful lessons for all.
  5. Societal issues and stories – a couple of chapters are dedicated to how schools could, and should, discuss what’s going on beyond the walls of the building. Handscombe deals with these issues, from FGM to protests, in a sensitive manner, acknowledging the difficulties and benefits of addressing subjects that aren’t always comfortable to us. If you’re ever tussling with how to tackle current events, like Black Lives Matter, for example, you’ll learn a lot from Harris Westminster’s experiences.

Favourite quote

‘Writing an assembly is an art in which ideas are woven together. Typically, I start with a message that I want the students to hear which might be the importance of using time wisely or even an exhortation not to block the toilets with paper towels; quite often, I have more than one such message. I then start to look for a story to tell, one whose moral could conceivably be the message. Sometimes the story will be a personal one, sometimes it will be a piece of news or literature, but often I will look for a personal hook – a place for me to stand as I talk to the school, a way to make an assembly human rather than functional. Finally, I will go in search of some cultural illustrations: some poetry or pop music, film, art, history, or mathematics that I can drop in along the way. These will always be things I think it is worth the students following up, sometimes for the cultural depth and heft it will give them, and sometimes because I want to share the joy I have found.

Favourite moment

As I mentioned earlier, the assembly transcripts are a rare and unexpected treat, as is their index which groups the assemblies by theme.

I have read many of the assemblies in full, which have provoked ideas and themes for my own future assemblies, but also provided me with many cultural references, quotes, news stories, etc.

These transcripts would be worth the price of the book alone.

Question and reflect

  • Do we make the most of assemblies? Does your school have a purposeful plan for the values and messages conveyed in assemblies?
  • Which cultural references or topical stories should we be addressing in school? How will we tackle these important issues?

Read this if…

You want to explore the journey of a school that put culture at the heart of what it does, especially in its assemblies

You want to improve your assemblies, or better understand different ways of maximising their potential

Find the book here

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