Eyes closed in Christian prayer

Children come together in two daily assemblies featuring one major diff erence: one contains no mention of God
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"Good morning everyone," says the head. "Good morning Mrs. Paul. good morning everyone," chorus 300 infant school children sitting crossed legged in the sunlit hall of Crawley Green Infants School in Luton.

Assembly at Crawley Green is a traditional as roast beef and veg dinner used to be on Sundays; the head teacher, Jan Paul, likes it that way. It kicks off with a prayer. Hands together and eyes closed to concentrate, the children, vivid in their bright blue school sweat shirts, religiously repeat every phrase their head teacher intones.

"Oh Lord, Bless our school. That by working together and playing together we may learn to serve you and to help one another, Amen." Then there is a hymn - "When I needed a hammer were you there ... ?" sung word perfect to a bouncy piano accompaniment.

Next, birthday cards for two children and a birthday song. Then there are stickers for the children who had worked hard or done something special .

Everyone claps, the prayer is repeated and assembly ends with the children filing out of the hall singing the hymn again.

All Crawley Green assemblies have Christian content, begin at 10.15am and are for the whole school. They last about 15 or 20 minutes.

Mrs Paul takes assembly on Mondays and Fridays; her deputies take Tuesdays and Thursdays; there is hymn practice on Wednesday.

At some assemblies Mrs. Paul will tell Old Testament Bible stories. "I'll do Noah or David and Goliath. I like them and the children do because they are such cracking stories."

Other times she will tell contemporary stories with a moral message designed to teach, for instance, the importance of keeping promises, helping others or being kind. "But the prayer will always be religious," she says.

In the spring and summer terms, each of the 10 classes take it in turns to run an assembly. They describe work they have been doing in class, bring paintings to show and recite poetry but prayers and a hymn are always included.

The school is popular. It serves a mixed catchment area; the majority of children live in surrounding council estates. About 10 per cent of the children are from different ethnic backgrounds: Asian, Afro Carribean, African, Greek and Turkish.

The school does a great deal based around Christmas and Easter celebrations but it also marks Diwali and Hanukkah. The only child ever withdrawn from assemblies during Mrs. Paul's 15 years as head at the school was the child of Jehovah's Witnesses.

She believes fervently in keeping the daily religious assembly. "We don't go really heavy on religion but I don't see the point of having an assembly if it's not going to have some religious point. It is such as simple way of teaching children about being good to one another.

"I'm not particularly religious myself but our culture is based partly on the Christian tradition. I like traditional things. I would hate to see traditional assemblies scrapped. We would be heathens."