Pupils gather in celebration of friendship

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"Keep Malmesbury tidy Keep Malmesbury clean The air should be fresh and the grass should be green.

So don't drop your rubbish You know what I mean Keep Malmesbury tidy Keep Malmesbury clean."

If cleanliness is next to godliness then the words of the final song of assembly at Malmesbury junior school yesterday will appeal to the religious, writes Martin Whitfield.

The central theme of the value of "friendship" also had a simple moral tone. But there was no mention of God, no mention of Christianity and no mention of religion.

Michael Russell, the headteacher of the 300-pupil school in Bow, east London, was confident that Malmesbury's assembly complied with the guidelines concerning the require- ment for a daily act of collective worship.

"The assembly is a focal point to celebrate all our achievements and an understanding of the differences and similarities between us," he added. "There must be a religious tone."

The school, which bases its religious education policy on that developed by the defunct Inner London Education Authority, organises link assemblies to various religious festivals.

This term will see the celebration of Ramadan, Passover and Easter as well as examining Bible stories. There will be visits to churches, mosques and synagogues. But, Mr Russell said, that concentration on a purely Christian interpretation would be wrong in a school with pupils and teachers from differing religious backgrounds.

"It would be more likely to divide than unite. I know some teachers that would be offended if it was solely Christian and I know some that would also be upset if it was based just on moral issues, not religious ones."

Malmesbury's catchment area in Tower Hamlets provides a complete cross-section of inner-London. The sons and daughters of consultants from the London Hospital and the urban professionals of Bow's gentrified Victorian squares mix with children of the unemployed from local council estates. About 35 per cent of pupils do not speak English as their first language and more than 20 foreign tongues are spoken at the school.

Yesterday's assembly came at the end of the school day, not the beginning. Children filed into the main hall of the Victorian school to the sound of sitar music from a tape recorder. A notice told them it was Classical Indian Music by Pannalal Ghosh. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, the children greeted their head with a polite "Good afternoon, Mr Russell".

The words of the first song, "Be Friends", accompanied by a teacher on piano, were displayed on an overhead projector. Children were invited to say what was meant by a good friend. Ten pupils came forward with prepared material to talk about friendship.

Mr Russell told a story of two poor sons who left home to make their way in the world. They stopped in a village, were refused food and shelter at the big house but were welcomed by the blacksmith. When they had made their fortune they passed by the village again and rejected an invitation from the rich man to a banquet in their honour in favour of joining their friend the blacksmith.

The message on the overhead projector was that friendship involved truthfulness, honesty and loyalty. And loyalty involved responsibilities and a duty to others.

With a wish for the children to have a safe and enjoyable weekend, the assembly was over. There were no prayers.