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What will happen to 'never forget'?

The tannoy in the supermarket discreetly interrupts me as I search for the right brand of soap powder. It is the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Silence is observed - a scene replicated in schools across the country.

As the century and millennium draw to a close, the media demand that we reflect on our history. And tucked between suffragettes and the great strike, between cricket tours and World Cup '66, are two world wars.

In advance of Armistice Day (as it was first called), we have been working with students to put the events in the context of what was happening at the time, and what has happened since.

I considered the "What were your parents doing during the second world war?" routine, but some of the parents weren't even born until the Swinging Sixties. I asked my colleagues, but they hadn't found any living relatives who had been anything more than children during that war either. The stories I can tell are those I remember from my parents' reminiscences. The immediacy, the impact is no longer there.

I ask about grandparents, but the disjointed families that our kids belong to means that several aren't talking to their grandparents and one granddad who, it is claimed, was in the German air force.

We ask about the Falklands and Gulf wars. Not only do our children not know where these places are, but they find it hard to believe that anyone would go all that way for a fight over a little island. "You could have a better fight down at the Arndale on a Saturday," according to Aaron.

Their response to our suggestion that these two events are important parts of our history, and shape the way that we live now, is blank faces. Even the realisation that their home town was bombed fails to elicit a response. "Supposing we were bombed now?" I naively ask. "Don't be daft, it'd be atomic and we'd all be wiped out. So why bother about it?" Past wars mean little to our kids.

I wonder how much they mean to others. As I walk away from the supermarket, I catch the end of the ceremony at the local war memorial. The lady Mayoress consults her diary and discusses travel arrangements for a meeting later in the day.

As the first-hand memories of the wars die, how long it will be before we forget? How long will we be able to talk about these events as part of the curriculum and to describe their importance on the way we live today?

As I drive home, I see two dark shapes in the sky. At first I think they are large birds, but then realise they are a Spitfire and Hurricane from the nearby RAF base at Duxford. They creep through the sky, small and insignificant. But that's what kids think about war.

The writer, who wants to remain anonymous, teaches in a pupil referral unit in East Anglia

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