Michaela Community School has insisted it meets academy funding rules by offering a daily act of worship after comments from its headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh led to claims suggesting otherwise.
Birbalsingh has given several interviews after it emerged her school was facing a high court legal challenge by a Muslim pupil for banning prayers.
When asked by Teachers Talk radio if her school assemblies have “prayers in them of any kind,” she said: “No, we don’t have prayers and our way of celebrating Christmas, for instance, is very secular.
“There’s a Santa, there’s a Christmas tree, but these are all very secular things.
“We would never have a nativity play, for instance, we don’t talk about Jesus; we absolutely embrace the idea of secularism and from the moment we opened in 2014 we’ve never had a prayer room.”
Schools actually have a legal requirement to hold a daily act of worship that is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character,” but schools can choose to opt out.
Schools Week previously reported Ofsted stopped inspecting collective worship in 2004 after 76 per cent of schools were found to be non-compliant.
In a blog this week, the National Secular Society (NSS) said Michaela is “apparently one of those.”
Michaela’s funding agreement – which academies must follow or face potential government intervention – states they “shall make provision … for a daily act of collective worship.”
Daily assemblies and ‘God Save the King’
When asked for clarification by Schools Week, a spokesperson for Birbalsingh said: “As per DfE guidance, we have daily assemblies which are principally directed towards furthering the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of the pupils.”
In an interview with UnHerd, Birbalsingh said pupils “sing God Save the King” at her assemblies. They also “sing Jerusalem,” a poem by William Blake that has become a popular hymn.
But the spokesperson did not respond to further requests to clarify if this was part of the daily worship.
The High Court case has led to impassioned views across a host of national media, from those supporting the school and its secularism or condemning it for a lack of religious tolerance.
But Megan Manson, head of campaigns at the NSS, said a point missed by commentators is “our laws make it technically impossible for a state school to be truly secular.”
The “only option” for schools not wanting to hold collective worship is “to ignore the law.” The case “shows the need to end” the legal requirement, she added.