There has been a four-fold increase in the Holocaust being taught in history at the lower end of Key Stage Three, but we must ensure students are old enough to fully understand it, says Professor Stuart Foster and Professor Ruth-Anne Lenga (both UCL Institute of Education).
Just over a decade ago, the UCL Centre For Holocaust Education published a nationwide study of Holocaust education in England. It was a landmark moment, for such large-scale research of this kind was unprecedented and our findings changed much of the debate in this important area.
It revealed a national picture of where, when and how the Holocaust was taught in schools, the abundant issues that teachers faced when teaching about it and it uncovered teachers’ knowledge and training needs. In response, our Centre created a programme tailored to address the issues and significantly improve the quality of teaching and learning about the Holocaust.
A lot can change in 10 years, so we have recently undertaken new research into current teaching practices. In particular, we were interested to find out what improvements have been made, what issues haven’t gone away, and what new challenges teachers face.
One finding showed a worrying trend to teach the Holocaust to a younger age group than was common in 2009. In fact, we found a four-fold increase in the Holocaust being tackled in history at the lower end of Key Stage Three (11 to 13-year-olds).
Teachers have indicated that one of the main reasons why this might be is that schools are increasingly beginning the teaching of GCSEs a year earlier, which in turn means that everything traditionally taught before this (including the Holocaust) is squeezed. Whatever the cause, it rings alarm bells.
It is essential that students confront the Holocaust at an age when they have the maturity to understand how and why it happened and to consider deeply its contemporary significance. They need to grasp demanding concepts such as antisemitism, racial ideology, totalitarianism, resistance and response, complicity and responsibility, mass murder and genocide, unimaginable human loss, and the meaning of survival.
Put simply, the younger the student, the harder this is. As a result, back in 2009, most teachers held off starting to teach the Holocaust until the last half of the summer term of Year Nine, when their pupils were 14. This allowed students a chance to grow cognitively and emotionally before being confronted, albeit with care, with an in-depth study of the Holocaust. It made perfect sense for schools to adopt this approach. After all, this is a traumatic history featuring atrocity on an unprecedented scale.
Because this history is so critical and so powerful, wherever possible it should be taught to students in Year Nine. This is particularly important as most students will not learn about the Holocaust at GCSE or A Level.
To this end, in the past decade we have developed an ever-expanding national network of schools and worked with more than 25,000 teachers to improve how and where the Holocaust is taught.
It is notable that some schools are bucking the trend to teach the Holocaust at a younger age. For example, Belle Vue Girls’ Academy in Bradford, one school we work closely with, has reverted from teaching the Holocaust at Year Eight to Year Nine. As Head Teacher Stephen Mulligan explains, partly this was "to allow curriculum time to develop students’ foundational knowledge of European history and related themes and concepts". But it was also because "we appreciated the importance of teaching this traumatic history at a pedagogically appropriate age".
Some may argue that learning from the Holocaust is so essential that the earlier students begin this study, the better. By the same token, it is possibly the most excruciatingly difficult a subject a teacher will ever teach and a student will ever learn, and the younger the students are in class, the more complicated and difficult this endeavour will be.
Getting the teaching of the Holocaust right is hard and teachers need to be given the support to make sure they can deliver it in the most suitable way possible. For whatever reason, asking them to undertake it with students who many consider too young to understand it to the fullest extent possible is very far from ideal.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Chronicle on 2 July 2021.