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Education Secretary cannot impose partisan political view on pupils

24th Sep 2021
Education Secretary cannot impose partisan political view on pupils

(Photo credit: Pixbay Commons)

Not for the first time, Boris Johnson’s Government is provoking controversy by intervening in how children are educated on contentious issues.

New guidance issued by the Department for Education banned schools in England from using resources produced by organisations deemed to take “extreme political stances on matters” even “if the material itself is not extreme.” Examples listed, but not exclusive, included those said to be in “opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience.”

Earlier this year, then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson sent a letter to schools suggesting how they should handle student protests against Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

It called on teachers to “act appropriately” when they express political views on Israel and Palestine, as well as claiming they were prohibited from engaging with organisations that reject Israel’s right to exist. The letter is facing a legal challenge, including whether Williamson is in effect breaching the 1996 Education Act by expressing his own partisan political views.

One key issue is in his advice that schools should “always avoid working with an organisation that promotes anti-Semitic and discriminatory views” and should be “particularly wary of potential bias in resources which claim to present the (Middle East) conflict in a balanced way.”

To be more specific, the Education Secretary singled out not working with or using material from organisations that “publicly reject Israel’s right to exist.”

The problem with such a demand is that no such abstract “right to exist” can be found in international law. No country has such a right despite Israel insisting since the 1970s that Palestinians concede it as a precondition to peace negotiations. It is one of many myths about the conflict that is now becoming embroiled in the never-ending interpretation of anti-Semitism.

Cage, a civil rights organisation, which is seeking judicial review, highlights over 200 cases of such heavy-handed responses from schools that have been recorded mostly by Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) detailing from students detailing how schools attempted to shut down support for Palestine.

Many see it as an attempt by Israel to silence all critics of its regular killings, destruction of homes and seizing more land for illegal settlement. It is worse when it is being supported by countries like Britain, which still holds a special responsibility since being mandated in 1920.

Actions against pupils have included being told that they cannot wear Palestinian badges and being told that displaying the Palestinian flag was equivalent to supporting terrorism. One teacher went as far as claiming the flag was akin to a swastika.

A headteacher in Leeds was also reported to have been told to apologise after telling a school assembly that some people saw the flag as a “symbol of anti-Semitism”.

There can be no argument against Williamson stressing that teachers need to be politically neutral in the classroom. But he cannot have it both ways in interfering with how to teach such contentious issues as the Middle East conflict.

Like at last year’s Tory conference, he cannot afford to be ambiguous when saying it was “important we give pupils the context in order for them to be able to learn and form their own opinions. They should not be influenced in an improper way.”

We can only trust that when an Education Department spokesman said the Government was “developing further guidance to support schools to understand and meet their duties in this area” that it clarifies any ambiguity rather than interfering anymore in how teachers are supposed to teach.

Since this editorial, Williamson has been sacked by PM Boris Johnson. It is now down to new Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi to clarify the issue.

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Over 120 people attended a landmark conference on the media reporting of Islam and Muslims. It was held jointly by The Muslim News and Society of Editors in London on September 15.

The Muslim News Awards for Excellence 2015 was held on March in London to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to the society.

The Muslim News Awards for Excellence 2015 was held on March in London to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to the society.

The Muslim News Awards for Excellence event is to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to society. Over 850 people from diverse background, Muslim and non-Muslim, attended the gala dinner.

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