The Law - All bar two: sex and religion

17th October 2008 at 01:00

Every so often a school will be approached by a parent who says: "I don't want my child to do ... ". Sometimes this is on purely pragmatic grounds: "What is the point of him doing French when he can't read English properly?" Sometimes it will be for religious reasons: various sects have raised theological objections to music, art and information technology, for example.

What exactly is the school's position? Does it have to accede to the parents' demands or does it have to impose the curriculum regardless?

The legal position is quite clear. Any maintained school and any academy where the funding agreement so states must teach the national curriculum in full. The only subjects which parents may excuse their children from are religious education and sex education, although there is no right to remove a child from human reproduction lessons.

But what about the right to freedom of religious belief and the right of children to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents?

In fact, both these rights are qualified. The right to believe what you like is absolute, and so is the right to change what you believe in. The law has a duty to protect apostates. But the right to manifest religious belief by a particular practice is not absolute. Moreover, there is also the right of a child not to be limited by their parents or the community they happen to be born into. The state may make laws about what education it will provide, and may insist that in its schools the curriculum, as established by law, is taught.

In reality, schools will exercise tact and compromise. But if they decide to insist on no exceptions to the national curriculum, they have the law on their side.

Richard Bird, Legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders.

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