The case of Montague v The Governing Body of Heavers Farm Primary School  has brought into question the position where teaching of inclusion, in respect of LGBT relationships, conflicts with the religious beliefs of parents.
The claimants in the case are the parents of a 4-year-old child (the child) who attended Heavers Farm Primary School (the school). The family are Christians but the school is a non-faith school which serves a religiously diverse pupil body.
In mid-2018, the school arranged for pupils to take part in several activities, forming part of the school’s spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical curriculum, which coincided with Pride Month. The activities included learning about a broad range of family structures and being read to from a book addressing diverse family structures, including the existence of same-sex families.
In addition, a Pride March was arranged for the pupils, which was re-named the “Proud to be Me Parade” following protests from parents at the school. As part of this parade, pupils made placards stating what they felt proud about and sang three songs, which the claimants in the case referred to as ‘gay anthems’. The parents took the view that the school was using the curriculum, as an opportunity to advance an LGBT agenda. This conflicted with their beliefs and therefore the child did not participate in the Proud to be Me Parade.
The child’s mother made a complaint to the Chair of Governors of the school (the complaint). A further complaint was submitted in September 2018, and a meeting was planned to take place between three representatives of the school and the claimants. The school’s deputy executive headteacher was to attend the meeting, but due to an urgent issue was replaced by another staff member who was wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, when you could just be quiet?”.
In October 2018, the child was given a lunchtime detention for disruptive behaviour during a lunch break. In addition, in October 2018 the mother’s behaviour, caused the school to ban her from being on the premises until January 2019.
A meeting between the claimants and the school’s complaints panel was arranged. The panel upheld complaints relating to the school’s poor communication regarding the Proud to be Me Parade, and the t-shirt worn during the previous meeting. However, the panel found no evidence that anybody had been labelled as homophobic for their beliefs, rejected the suggestion that the child had been adversely treated, by being given a detention, as a result of his parents’ beliefs, and upheld the banning of the mother from the school premises.
The parents brought a claim against the school alleging various breaches of the European Convention of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. The basis of the claim was that the school had asked the child to become involved with events which interfered with the family’s religious beliefs and values, and in turn contravened the child’s right to education.
The parents also claimed that the school’s treatment of their complaints, and the detention issued to the child and the barring of the mother from the school site in October 2018, were the direct result of their Christian beliefs and the parents’ complaints to the school.
The court broke the claim down into the following issues for consideration:
The court accepted that the claimants are a Christian family upholding and raising their child pursuant to Christian values and beliefs. This is a protected characteristic which the parents and the child hold.
The court considered whether the school’s curriculum had promoted LGBT beliefs over others but found that the parents had not considered the broader scope of the school’s curriculum which also taught about, for example, racial discrimination. The court also found that, as the curriculum was spiritual, moral, cultural, mental, and physical development rather than RSE, parents were not permitted to opt out.
In delivering the school’s curriculum, the court found that the core was to teach pupils that there is no hierarchy of equalities. The court found that the delivery of the curriculum simply served as evidence of the school meeting its statutory requirements and to foster equality, diversity, and tolerance.
In respect of the parents’ complaints, the court found that the school had failed in that, upon making a complaint about the school’s executive headteacher, the parents’ complaint should have been directed to the Chair of Governors rather than the executive headteacher. Further, the t-shirt worn to the meeting was wholly inappropriate. However, there was no evidence that these failings were a result of the family’s Christian beliefs.
The court found in respect of the child’s detention that it was activated by the child’s behaviour and the sanction was in accordance with the school’s behaviour policy.
The court also found that the school’s decision to ban the mother from the school premises was reasonable considering her behaviour and was not an act of retribution by the school.
7. Breach of statutory duty
Finally, the court considered the claimants’ argument that the school’s teaching amounted to ‘sex education’ and therefore obliged the school to allow for pupils to be excused from such teaching, and that the LGBT teaching constituted a partisan political activity.
The court found that the school’s teaching was not sex education, and the school was not involved in the promotion of any political views. In any event, a breach of statutory duty does not generally, by itself, give rise to any private law cause of action unless the statutory duty was imposed for the protection of a limited class of the public and was intended to confer on members of that class a private right of action for breach of the duty. As the Education Act 1996 has not been put in place for the protection of a limited class of the public, there was no private law cause of action for the claimants to act upon.
Schools face a fine balancing exercise to ensure that children are taught an inclusive curriculum, whilst respecting a wide range of religious views from parents. This judgement will provide some much-needed clarity on teaching spiritual, moral, cultural, mental, and physical development. We can support you with legal advice on complex parental complaints to ensure your school complies with procedure and guidance.