Skip to main content

UK court dismisses challenge to government schools guidance on Palestine

Advocacy group had argued education minister's letter, which led to censure of dozens of schoolchildren showing support for Palestine, was discriminatory
Williamson sent his letter at the height of Israel's bombardment of Gaza in 2021 as schools across Britain grapple with growing student activism for Palestine (AFP)
By Areeb Ullah in London

The High Court in London has dismissed a legal challenge brought against the Department for Education over the issuing of "discriminatory" guidance to teachers that led to dozens of schoolchildren being censured for showing support for Palestine during the Israeli bombing of Gaza last year.

Cage, a human rights advocacy group in London, launched judicial review proceedings last year after the letter, written in May 2021 by then-education minister Gavin Williamson, urged teachers to "act appropriately" when expressing views on Israel and Palestine.

'It validates the Department of Education's attempts to police the Palestine debate at our schools in favour of the pro-Israel narrative'

- Muhammad Rabbani, Cage

Described as a response to an "increase in antisemitic incidents in some schools" caused by "an increased focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict", the letter also advised schools not to work with organisations questioning Israel's "right to exist".

"I am aware that many young people will have a strong personal interest in these issues, and I am aware that in some schools, this has led to political activity by older pupils," Williamson, who was dismissed from his role in September, wrote.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


"It is unacceptable to allow some pupils to create an atmosphere of intimidation or fear for other students and teachers," the letter continued, warning headteachers of "legal duties regarding political impartiality" and urging administrations to favour a "balanced presentation of opposing views" on the Israel-Palestine conflict.  

The review proposed by Cage and its lawyers called for the Department for Education to publicly withdraw the letter on grounds including that it was discriminatory against Muslim schoolchildren, that it reflected pro-Israel bias on Williamson's part, and that proper consultation had not been conducted before it was issued.

Speaking after Thursday's hearing, Muhammad Rabbani, the organisation's managing director, said the dismissal of the case was "disappointing but unsurprising" and a "blow to free speech".

"It validates the Department of Education's attempts to police the Palestine debate at our schools in favour of the pro-Israel narrative," said Rabbani. 

"The choreographing of political discussions in this way within schools is akin to the manner of autocratic regimes and seriously curtails freedom of speech."

'Partisan view'

On Thursday, Cage also published results of a survey of school events promoting support for Ukraine in its war with Russia, which it said contrasted with the "securitisation" of schoolchildren expressing support for Palestinians.

Fahad Ansari, a solicitor and director of Riverway Law, which represented Cage, said the High Court had "failed to protect the freedom of expression of pupils" who supported Palestinian rights.

Ansari said: "The court has essentially enabled the government to compel head teachers and school leaders to adopt a partisan view on the Israeli-Palestinian issue thereby shifting their role from education to indoctrination."

"Equating the rejection of the State of Israel's 'right to exist' with antisemitism is not only factually wrong but undermines the fight against genuine antisemitism," he added.

Williamson's intervention came days after MEE reported that schools across Britain were clamping down on pro-Palestine activism on school premises. Some students said they were disciplined for wearing keffiyehs and holding Palestine flags. 

'Controlled spontaneity': The secret UK government blueprints shaping post-terror planning
Read More »

Several students who spoke to MEE said they were threatened with detention, expulsion, and being blocked from taking their exams if they continued protesting for Palestinian rights on school premises. 

Cage said it had handled at least 47 cases of students and teachers who said they were censored for expressing their support for Palestine.  

Mend, a not-for-profit company that supports British Muslims, also recorded 146 statements from students detailing how schools attempted to shut down support for Palestine. 

One student was reprimanded for wearing a "Free Palestine" badge. In another school, teachers claimed it was Palestine's fault that it was being bombed.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.