Should a primary school head really have asked pupils as young as four to go on an LGBT Pride march? Headteacher defends parade after some parents pulled their children out
- Twenty children didn’t attend Heavers Farm School due to the planned march
- Ninety more failed to turn up to school that day without giving any explanations
- Angry parents in favour of the march branded those who had objected as bigots
School head Susan Papas: Faced an angry backlash
Four-year-old Tristan Anderson is a lively boy who loves books about bears, cartoons and playing football.
At an age when he’s still learning to read and can’t yet tell the time, he has a simple outlook on the world — and, with a Mummy and Daddy to care for him, the assumption that everyone else belongs to a similar family unit.
And that, his mother insists, is how it should remain for another few years.
So when she discovered Tristan’s primary school was organising a march to celebrate the culmination of lessons they’d laid on to mark June’s Pride Month, thrown nationwide in honour of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender (LGBT) rights, she was concerned.
‘Of course we realise families different to our own exist,’ says Ruth Anderson. ‘But it’s up to us as parents when to explain this to our son — not to his school, whose head teacher is pushing an agenda that is entirely irrelevant to children this young.’
Ruth wasn’t alone in feeling this way. So strong was this sentiment among a faction of parents at Heavers Farm School in Croydon, South-East London, they warned head teacher Susan Papas that should the march go ahead, they’d keep their children at home.
Twenty children didn’t attend due to the planned march; 90 more failed to turn up to school that day without their families offering explanations.
So strong was this sentiment among a faction of parents at Heavers Farm School in Croydon, South-East London, they warned head teacher Susan Papas that should the march go ahead, they’d keep their children at home
After having initially justified lessons on LGBT issues as part of the statutory school curriculum, Susan Papas, 58, finally buckled under parental pressure, axeing the march and holding a scaled-down assembly instead.
It was a decision that caused a ferocious backlash, with angry parents who’d been in favour of the march branding those who had objected as bigots.
Meanwhile, the school became a cause celebre for LGBT rights, with no one keener to defend it than Papas herself.
‘We have used National Pride Month as a vehicle,’ she says. ‘All we have taught is that different families are made in different ways, and we accept and love everyone. That is it. I was surprised at how unembarrassed some parents were about coming into school and expressing quite strong homophobic views.’
Other equally angry parents refute the head’s version of events. They say their children are too young to be taught about sexuality at all — and that to affiliate the school with LGBT issues so overtly is part of a wider attempt to subject small children to gender-related educational trends.
Many Heavers Farm parents claim that highlighting gender issues in this way simply creates problems (stock image)
‘This has nothing to do with homophobia,’ says Ruth, 34, a medical worker who also has a baby girl with her office worker husband. ‘I want the school to focus on learning. I want to explain LGBT issues to my son myself when he’s old enough to understand.
‘I am disgusted by how dishonest the head has been about all this. She is happy to talk to the media but she won’t talk to us. A lot of parents are shocked and angry.’
So what on earth is going on at Heavers Farm Primary? Vibrant and multi-cultural, its 750 pupils come from many different religions, ethnicities and social classes. They appear to get on well when left to their own devices — but when a heavily politicised agenda is foisted on them so deliberately, perhaps it is unsurprising that sparks will fly.
Ruth, a second generation immigrant — her parents moved to Britain from Nigeria and Sierra Leone — is a devout Christian. As such, she is uncomfortable with the idea of a child having two mothers or two fathers.
‘As a Christian, in my eyes, that isn’t a family — and at his age I don’t know how I would explain to my son that a child has two mums,’ she says. ‘I realise some parents think it is perfectly fine, but there are Pride Marches held outside of school hours for those people who want to take their children. Why couldn’t teachers suggest that?’
Papas, the head of Heavers Farm for the past 11 years, decided this year to integrate June’s Pride Month into the curriculum as part of its statutory SMSC (Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural) lessons — an initiative by the Department of Education that decrees pupils must be taught to celebrate diversity.
She hoped that marking Pride Month would help the school’s LGBT families (she says there are ‘some’) to feel included, while also addressing the ‘homophobic language children use in the playground’.
It’s a statement that seems to baffle Ruth Anderson.
‘We teach our son to respect everyone,’ she says. ‘I have yet to see him make fun of anyone. Children don’t make a big deal out of people who are different.’
Many Heavers Farm parents claim that highlighting gender issues in this way simply creates problems.
One mother in her 30s, who has an eight-year-old son in year 4 and a daughter in reception, says: ‘I’m very open with my children. I’m in a mixed relationship: their father is black. Why would I teach my children prejudice? The school is diverse and my children are already learning in an environment with different cultures.’
Robert Pace, a motorway services worker whose daughter Anastasia is in the reception class, says: ‘I have nothing against Pride. I have a lot of gay friends myself. But teaching five-year-olds about it? No.’
Anastasia’s mother, Rebecca, adds: ‘Why should a five-year-old learn about it when they’re just learning the basics of life?’
Nonetheless, Papas, who says Pride Month activities she held at Heavers Farm’s sister school, nearby Selsdon Primary (run by Papas and the same management team) were a success, is emphatic that homophobic bullying is rife in many school playgrounds.
‘Children call each other “gay” or “lesbian” as a negative insult, not knowing what it means,’ she says. ‘They’re fairly common words to be used among young children, in a negative way.’
Does she not feel it is up to parents to teach their children about sexuality, rather than school?
‘Of course parents will have these conversations,’ she says, but believes: ‘I don’t think it’s an either/or.’
As Pride Month got underway, with Pride’s trademark rainbow flags hung around the school foyer, parents gleaned, among other things, that children were taught about two penguins of the same sex raising a baby, and being encouraged to discuss why the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ were being used as slurs in the playground. Older pupils read about the history of Pride.
Reports circulated among parents that children had seen a video of two boys kissing. In fact, says Papas, the boys were men and pecked each other on the cheek.
A week in, some parents expressed their disapproval.
‘Some asked if they could withdraw their children from class,’ says Papas. ‘We said they don’t actually have that right.
‘Some of their anxieties were based on misinformation that we’d been teaching something inappropriate about sexuality.
‘They said we were “turning” children gay and that children had lost their innocence. I wasn’t surprised people had questions — I’m not naïve — but I was surprised by the strength of feeling.’
Surely the school can understand some parents might be affronted they had not been told of the content of lessons in advance? Apparently not.
‘Part of the criticism from parents was that they had not been prepared,’ says deputy headmistress Jo Read. ‘We said: “Why would we? We wouldn’t prepare you if we were going to do a new topic in maths.”’
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Staff then sent an opaquely worded letter to parents acknowledging ‘confusion’ over what was being taught and explaining that the school was ‘required by law’ to teach SMSC classes.
Although not referred to directly, their LGBT work was, they implied, part of the ‘British values’ they were obliged to teach.
The letter said staff ‘understand some parents are concerned that the children are being exposed to things they feel inappropriate, but this is not the case’.
Ruth Anderson says: ‘The tone was inappropriate. It felt like an angry and unprofessional way of dealing with unhappy parents — a way of using the law to push their own agenda.’
Although not referred to directly, their LGBT work was, they implied, part of the ‘British values’ they were obliged to teach (stock image)
Today, Papas admits the letter could have been more informative: ‘People had been shouting at us, and on reflection we were feeling quite defensive.’
Parents then turned up at the school demanding a meeting. Accounts of what happened next vary. Deputy head Jo Read says parents were ‘shouting and wailing and crying that we had taken away their children’s innocence’ — while claiming, Papas adds, ‘that homosexuality was taboo and a sin’.
Rather than agree to a meeting, Papas — who wasn’t present — says ‘they were asked to make an appointment. Some refused.’
Ruth, however, who was not in this group but saw them, says: ‘They were simply saying that what was happening wasn’t right, and wanted to speak to the head. They didn’t raise their voices. They were told to get off the school premises. They came away feeling very upset their concerns weren’t being answered.’
On June 26, an announcement was put on the school website inviting parents to come to the march on June 29 celebrating what makes the children ‘proud of themselves and their family’.
With local Labour MP Steve Reed invited, Ruth believes Papas viewed the event as a high-profile publicity opportunity.’ We were asked to dress our children in bright rainbow colours, and racially it would have looked good.
‘The head would have got credit for changing the minds of African and Asian people, and showing we’re all-accepting — but I don’t think we all are.
‘I find it offensive that the head keeps talking about this as part of “British values”. Is she saying I’m not British because I don’t agree with what she’s taught?’ It is a question to which Papas, after a long pause, replies: ‘We are directed, as schools, to reinforce British values, and one of those is about tolerance.
‘So I would probably argue that if someone is intolerant of another kind of family, that would not come under British values.’
Then again, schools are also obliged to teach respect for different faiths — and if Ruth disagrees with LGBT families on account of her religion, well, does she not see their views as valid?
On June 26, an announcement was put on the school website inviting parents to come to the march on June 29
‘If I was taking their views on board, I’m not sure what that would look like,’ says Papas. ‘Would we be saying we do not teach values of tolerance to our children?’
Ruth says that in the run-up to the Pride March, ‘at least’ 40 parents agreed they would keep their children away. Papas, meanwhile, says a teacher had been taken aside by a supportive parent and warned the school ‘should be aware’ that those who objected to the march were planning a protest and making placards — something that Ruth vehemently denies.
‘It is a lie,’ she says. ‘We never, ever said we were going to protest. The worst we said was that we wouldn’t turn up to school in the morning.’
Nonetheless, Papas cancelled the parade on the grounds it could be a safety risk. Unaware it was off, the mother-of-two the Mail spoke to kept her children away. She believes that in her year 4 son’s class ‘only ten children came in.’
She says she was warned by the school that it would ‘be put down as unauthorised absence’ and adds: ‘The impression I got from other parents is that she (Papas) did not care about their concerns. It was a case of “This is what’s happening: like it or lump it.”’
Of the march’s cancellation, Ruth says: ‘It doesn’t feel like a victory as such when you’re at loggerheads with your child’s school. We didn’t understand how the head had let it get this far.
‘Lots of parents are saying she should resign. She’s obviously not fit for the role when she attacks parents in this way.’
But Papas is adamant: ‘It would be bizarre to resign from something that is so positive,’ she says.
‘I stand by the work we’re doing. We have a responsibility as a school community to say that children who come from different family arrangements are loved.’
Additional reporting: Stephanie Condron.
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