Parents protested outside an east London primary school on Thursday morning after a British Palestinian child faced “extraordinarily degrading and humiliating punishments” from the school’s management for refusing to remove a small Palestine flag patch stitched into his coat.
The eight-year-old, who has had friends and family killed in Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza, has not attended school since 23 November as a result of the dispute.
Shahid Achhala told Novara Media that staff at Barclay Primary School in Leyton forbade his son from playing outside or eating lunch with his year group, ordered him to wear a “ridiculously oversized coat” that saw him mocked by his peers, and informed him he wouldn’t be welcome on school grounds wearing his own coat.
The boy’s parents were even warned they could be referred to Prevent, the government’s counter-terrorism programme.
Achhala argues that what his son has faced constitutes discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. The school denies that any bullying or misconduct has taken place.
In a letter to the headteacher and chair of governors on 4 December, the boy’s parents wrote that the action taken by Barclay Primary had left their son feeling “distressed, hurt, humiliated, helpless, withdrawn and fearful”. They say that he has “been made to feel as though in order to be welcomed at school he needs to abandon his identity”, and that he sees the treatment “as being linked to him being Palestinian and Muslim”.
Problems started when a number of pupils wore Palestinian colours, badges and stickers to school for Children in Need on 17 November. Later that day, at least eight families received letters from school management banning “this overt demonstration of political beliefs” and suggesting children could be being used as “political pawns” by their parents.
The letter – which parents say was “threateningly worded” – also said that “inappropriate […] extremist or divisive comments” made at school could lead to referral to Prevent.
Achhala told Novara Media that the following Monday, his son – who has lost friends his own age in Gaza with whom he used to speak over the phone – went to school wearing his coat nonetheless. He says his son is “adamant that he wants to keep the flag on because it represents who he is”.
Over the following days, the boy came under increasing pressure over the patch on his coat. On 23 November, his parents were told that if he came to school the next day with his coat, he would not be welcome on school grounds.
The boy has not attended school since then, completing his school work from home until his class teacher was told by management that she was not to provide him with any more work, or to take in any work that he had completed.
In response to the letter to parents dated 17 November, a counter-letter signed by over 170 parents raised concerns about children’s freedom of expression, the conflation of support for Palestine with support for terrorism (“at best ignorant, at worst Islamophobic”), and the school’s “disparity of approach” in its solidarity with Ukraine following Russia’s invasion in 2022.
On 20 December, after hearing about the protest planned by parents for 21 December, Barclay Primary announced it would be closing early for Christmas.
This isn’t the first time Barclay Primary has faced allegations of Islamophobia. In 2015, Aaron Wright – then acting headteacher of Barclay – wrote to parents of pupils at Barclay and other primary schools run by the Lion Academy Trust forbidding students from fasting during Ramadan, prompting criticism from the Muslim Association of Britain.
Barclay Primary declined Novara Media’s request for comment, but a statement on its website claims that allegations against the school and the Lion Academy Trust are “false and unfounded” and that “it will be taking all necessary steps to resolve this [issue] correctly”.
The boy’s parents are currently consulting with lawyers.
Clare Hymer is a commissioning editor at Novara Media.