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GAVIN WILLIAMSON is facing legal action after issuing “discriminatory” guidance to schools on Palestine.
London-based rights group Cage, which is bringing the challenge, has accused the Education Secretary of “censoring” discussion on Palestine and trying to control debate on the issue in schools.
In May, he wrote to headteachers ordering them to ensure “political impartiality” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in response to “a concerning increase in anti-semitic incidents in some schools.”
But Cage said that Mr Williamson’s letter, “although cloaked in concerns around anti-semitism,” failed to “recognise the importance of the rights of political expression and association.”
His intervention came after hundreds of students were reprimanded for expressing solidarity with the Palestinians in response to Israel’s most recent campaign of military aggression against the Gaza Strip.
In a pre-action letter for a judicial review sent on Monday, Cage argues that the guidance discriminates against Muslim students by failing to mention “the increase in discriminatory behaviour towards Muslim pupils by teaching staff.”
The group said that Muslims were involved in all 47 cases it has handled where students faced sanctions relating to Palestine solidarity.
A separate report by campaign group Mend, which seeks to tackle Islamophobia in Britain, said it had received 146 reports of students facing disciplinary action in schools since May.
This included cases where students were told that displaying the Palestinian flag was equivalent to supporting terrorism, with one teacher claiming that the flag was akin to a swastika, the group said.
Mr Williamson’s letter added that schools should not present materials in a “politically biased or one-sided way” and recommended three organisations that staff can use to teach “a sensitive topic in a balanced way.”
However, Cage pointed out that two of the groups recommended, Solutions not Sides and the Community Security Trust, are“known for their unstinted support of Israel.”
The advocacy group alleged that promoting such groups as balanced sources was inconsistent with education laws.
Cage managing director Muhammad Rabban said that his organisation’s case would “seek to establish that it is not the function of the executive to choreograph political discussions within schools in the manner of autocratic regimes.
“This violates the tradition and legal requirement of impartiality that has been the bulwark against state propaganda,” he continued. “We should respect the experience and judgement of school leaders and not politicians seeking to foment ‘culture wars’.”
Solicitor Fahad Ansari, a director of Riverway Law, which is handling the case on behalf of Cage, said: “The instruction issued by the Secretary of State has had the effect of not only stifling the legitimate political views of Muslim students in schools across the country but also justifying their securitisation for simply demonstrating solidarity with the victims of Israeli apartheid.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Antisemitism, like all forms of racism, is abhorrent and has no place in our schools.
“The Education Secretary wrote to schools to remind them of their responsibility to deal with antisemitic incidents with due seriousness, following a reported increase during the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
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