Feature: How UCL-supported Beacon Schools ensure Holocaust’s lessons are not forgotten

UCL Centre for Holocaust Education - Credit: UCL’s Centre for Holocaust Ed
UCL Centre for Holocaust Education - Credit: UCL’s Centre for Holocaust Education and Charlotte Lane
Over the past decade, UCL’s Centre for Holocaust Education has revolutionised teacher training through its flagship Beacon School programme, inspiring thousands of educators who go back to their classrooms informed and empowered to challenge generational cycles of prejudice.

More than half of people in the UK don’t realise that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, according to a national survey in 2021* which chimed with research undertaken by academics at the Centre, a unique institution established in 2008 to improve education and public knowledge of the Holocaust and its terrible legacy.

A key branch of the Centre’s work is the Beacon School programme, which seeks to ensure that young people have secure knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust by helping schools to develop into innovative centres of educational excellence, capable of tackling misinformation and inspiring unbiased , critical thinking. Every year, the Centre looks to recruit up to 20 secondary schools in England committed to enhancing teaching and learning about the Holocaust.

History teacher Sam Ineson said of his experience with the programme: "The Beacon School programme used the lens of the Holocaust very directly, but it also inspired broader changes across the school more widely." 

During his time on the Beacon School programme, Sam’s school - Manchester Enterprise Academy - was able to bring a permanent museum about the Holocaust to the school following his discovery that most of his students hadn’t visited one before. The Centre helped the school loan artefacts which students and parents could learn from free of charge.

Across its 10-year history , 179 schools have completed the Beacon School programme, 1,600 network schools have partnered with Beacon Schools to improve Holocaust Education and 21 schools have achieved Beacon School Quality Mark status, enriching the education of 1.6 million pupils each year.

Ruth-Anne Lenga, the Centre’s Programme Director, said: "We work to improve the teaching of this hugely important history and in doing so we help hundreds of thousands of young people to understand why and how it happened.

"We enable young people to consider why this history matters today and to recognise the dangers of 21 century extremism and antisemitism."

A successful Beacon School application enables a Lead Teacher to deepen their subject and content knowledge about the Holocaust, through a range of bespoke, specialist online and face-to-face taught modules and opportunities. The Lead Teacher has access to excellent classroom resources, guidance on devising quality lesson plans and materials that build progression both for improved student outcomes and by way of professional development.

The programme enables Lead Teachers to raise standards across their schools, improve student attainment and make a major contribution to whole school initiatives which then ripple across the wider community.

The UCL Centre for Holocaust Education is based at the IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, and opened in 2008 with the support of the Department for Education and the Pears Foundation. Shortly after its opening, the Centre produced the first national empirical portrait of teaching practices around the Holocaust in England, which then informed the creation of their unique c’ontinuous professional development programmes which are available for teachers at different career stages. The Centre is the only institution in the world that conducts empirical educational research into teaching and learning about the Holocaust, and then uses the findings to create research-informed professional development for teachers.

One of the key educational materials supplied by the Centre is their Key Stage 4 textbook, titled ’Understanding the Holocaust: How and why did it happen?’, developed by UCL academics in response to research findings on students’ knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust. To date, over 60,000 copies of the textbook have been distributed free of charge to over 2,000 schools.

As part of its international work, in 2020, the Centre developed an online set of curricula for teacher trainers to address antisemitism in schools which launched with UNESCO and OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe). Now used in 50 countries, the curricula follow a human rights-based approach and provide pedagogical knowledge with concrete activities to strengthen teacher trainers’ understanding of antisemitism and resilience against prejudice and discrimination.

Reflections from four Beacon School teachers

Sara Sinaguglia is an Assistant Vice Principal in Oak Academy in Bournemouth. Whilst part of the 2020-21 cohort of Beacon School teachers , she enabled her students to engage with the local and international community informed by their enquiry-led learning.

Sara’s year 10 and 11 students worked with three schools to tell the stories of a group of Jewish schoolchildren from Herne, Germany. "They contacted museums across the world, translated original documents, interviewed family members, and shared their findings with the school community in a series of assemblies," explained Sara.

"The Beacon school programme gave me a new perspective on humanising history through the delivery of authentic encounters and a focus on individual stories, something which my colleagues and I have carried into other areas of our curriculum. This has helped us to ensure that silences are filled, and marginalised voices are heard," said Sara, who is completing her Master’s in Applied Educational Leadership at UCL.

Sam Ineson is  the lead practitioner of History at Paddington Academy, London and applied for the Beacon School Programme in his first year of teaching at Manchester Enterprise Academy. 

Reflecting on his career, Sam said: "The Beacon School programme has been central to my development in terms of pedagogy and curriculum design. It was amazing to be mentored and guided over the course of a year by the IOE’s Dr Arthur Chapman, who is top in his field for history curriculum design.

"The quality of conversation within the school has become significantly better and broader because of the amount of research and thinking we were exposed to by UCL.

"When other departments and schools see you thinking about the granular details of your curriculum in this way, it encourages them to think more deeply about the teaching quality on a range of subjects."

"I can confidently say, I wouldn’t be sat here today, doing this job, had it not been for the Beacon School programme," added Sam, who is now also studying for a Master’s in Comparative Education at UCL.

Jaya Carrier is a Vice Principal at Westminster Academy, London. Jaya has worked as a Beacon School Lead Teacher at Bishop Challoner School in Tower Hamlets and most recently as the senior leadership team link to the Lead Teacher at her current school.

"The Beacon School programme has stayed with me in such an important way," said Jaya, who was mentored by Dr Emma O’Brien (IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society).

"The programme has made such a profound difference to the way in which I want to lead teachers to improve and critically reflect on their practice. It was so immersive, it was so subject driven, and it provided in-depth knowledge on the Holocaust and guidance on how to teach it. 

"I found the enquiry-led approach to teaching and focus on collaboration, both with the Beacon School network and UCL to be so powerful."

Jaya added: "We know that antisemitism is on the rise, and the education around the Holocaust is so important in our efforts to tackle that. With the support of the Beacon School programme, I feel so much better equipped to deal with challenging topics, respond to questions and engage students to reflect on deeply meaningful and significant events."

On the Centre’s blog, Charlotte Lane , a Beacon School teacher at Torpoint Community College in Cornwall, shares creative and thought-provoking examples of student work leveraging their Holocaust education. Charlotte reflects on how the Centre was instrumental in revealing the extent to which students experienced an ’Auschwitz-centric’ understanding of the Holocaust. This inspired Charlotte to take a much wider focus when she taught her lessons.

"It turned our student experiences from one camp, one lasting visual memory, into a multi-faceted, richer experience for our students. As a result, returning to the classroom, we fully embrace students as researchers and facilitated research into the camp system, encouraging and celebrating a wide range of student findings," writes Charlotte.

Following a UCL Beacon School study visit to Poland, in which students visited Treblinka, site of the former Nazi extermination camp, Charlotte collected classwork in which students reflected on their understanding of the Holocaust. One student in Charlotte’s class had decided to create a set of nestling boxes based on the narrative of the Greenman family, instead of writing about what she had learned.

"When I asked her about her inspiration for this homework, she said  ’I couldn’t just write about the Holocaust as ’one thing’. I couldn’t even describe it in words, so I made it’.

"My hope is that one day colleagues in schools across the country experience something of what I did, and apply to become a Beacon School, or that they are inspired to be courageous about the potential of shaping a future, so that we will one day live a world free of hate, antisemitism, human rights abuse and genocide," said Charlotte.

23 new schools have joined the Programme this year and with UCL’s support will equip thousands of students with an ability to critically engage with important historical events to help break generational cycles of misinformation and division.