Dr Peter Hemming, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, 20/11/23
Today is World Children’s Day, which marks the launch of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and promotes the importance of listening to children’s voices. Since the adoption of the Convention, understandings of children in British society have fundamentally changed from ‘minors’ who should be ‘seen and not heard’ to individuals whose opinions and ideas ought to be taken seriously.
The introduction of laws requiring children’s participation in the design and delivery of services to better reflect their needs (e.g. 2004 Children Act in England), have led to the wide adoption of pupil voice initiatives in primary schools, such as school councils, circle time, and pupil working groups (Whitty & Wisby 2007). Whilst critics have pointed to the limited impact of such initiatives on teaching and the curriculum, they have arguably been more successful in promoting children’s views in other areas important to them, such as school lunches, toilet facilities and playground equipment.
One aspect of everyday institutional life where children’s voices have not yet been fully heard is school assemblies. These gatherings usually happen several times a week in primary schools in Britain and provide an opportunity for some or all classes to come together for stories, music and singing, teacher notices, awards and certificates, and prayer or reflection.
Their existence stems back to the historical role of the churches in the development of mass education in Britain, and the daily collective hymns and prayers that pupils would attend. Whilst assemblies in many schools typically now possess a more secular flavour (despite legislation to the contrary) the time-honoured ritual remains to this day (Shillitoe 2023).
Assemblies are usually held in the school hall, which in most primary schools is also used for physical education, lunches and seasonal concerts. Pupils typically sit in parallel rows, with the youngest at the front and the oldest at the back. Whilst the latter are often allowed to sit on gym benches, the rest of the children are expected to sit cross-legged on the wooden hall floor.
Assemblies have been an important focal point for my research on children’s experiences of religion and spirituality in schools. Across three separate studies, collectively involving around 200 child interviewees in multiple schools across Britain, there has been one consistent and frequently articulated complaint that always emerges: pupils really dislike the discomfort of sitting on a hard wooden assembly hall floor (e.g. Hemming 2015).
My current research with colleagues Anna Strhan and Joanna Malone (University of York) and Sarah Neal (University of Sheffield), entitled ‘Becoming Citizens of ‘Post-Secular’ Britain: Religion in Primary School Life’ (funded by the Leverhulme Trust), has also involved asking children about their experiences of assemblies, as part of a wider study into how they understand what it means to belong to different communities, and how this relates to religious or non-religious beliefs and values. Of the 36 paired or small group interviews with pupils aged 7-11 conducted so far across our case study schools, 21 of these have featured complaints about sitting on the floor during assembly. A selection of quotes is included below:
I don’t really like how we have to sit there, on the floor. Because I get pins and needles, and it really hurts so bad. (Savannah, age 10)
We always sit down and it really hurts your back and bum. (Michael, age 10)
It just hurts my back […] I feel like your back is like crunching. (Theo, age 9)
I hate sitting on the floor because it hurts my bottom and it smells. (Aaron, age 10)
When you have to sit down on the floor, the floor can get cold or it can get hot because of the weather. (Lalia, age 9)
I also don’t like when the floors are not clean. Crusty, musty, dusty fingers go on the floor, and then there’s left over gravy from food on my hands. (Finley, age 10)
Why are we sitting on wood? God knows what’s been on that floor. (Nicholas, age 9)
I have a speech! We have to sit on the floor. We need more respect. (Alika, age 10)
Sitting on the floor during assemblies is so ingrained in the culture of primary school life, that it is rarely questioned or thought about. This is despite the fact that secondary school pupils in Britain (aged 11-18) are typically provided with chairs during assemblies, and primary aged children in many other European contexts are not usually required to sit on the floor, like in France where formal assemblies do not tend to feature in the school day. In cultural contexts elsewhere in the world where sitting on the floor is much more common for both adults and children, such practices are often accompanied by the use of mats or cushions for extra comfort and support.
Even the most minimal nod to children’s bodily comfort can make a significant difference to the experience of sitting. Interestingly, the popular practice of asking pupils to ‘sit on the carpet’ in British primary school classrooms, for teaching and learning activities or storytelling, appears less controversial with children and has not featured prominently in their accounts of school life in my research (although see Pichon 2012).
Feeling comfortable in an institutional setting is essential for developing a sense of belonging so it seems odd that children’s material comfort has not been taken more seriously. As Alika in the quote above points out, the issue is one of respect. If there is no compelling reason for children to sit in discomfort, then why are we asking them to do so? Just as corporal punishment now seems difficult to imagine as a routine feature of school life, sitting on wooden floors in assemblies may similarly disappear.
One of the barriers to change is limited resources and the extra time required to set out rows of chairs for every planned assembly. However, most primary schools have an ample supply of large floor mats for use in gymnastics lessons, and these could quite easily be arranged for pupils to sit on. Alternatively, children could each be asked to carry a chair or a cushion from their classrooms to the hall and back again for use during the assembly. The obstacles are not insurmountable – they merely require some creative thinking and positive intent.