Pupils who learn about the Holocaust at primary school are more likely to be racist as teenagers than those who do not. And teachers often shy away from discussing the Holocaust for fear of exposing racism or offending parents.
Academics from Strathclyde University and the University of the West of Scotland spoke to 100 secondary pupils who had been taught about the Second World War genocide at primary school. They also spoke to secondary pupils who had not previously studied the topic. All had learnt about the Holocaust as part of their Year 9 history lessons.
The findings will be presented at the annual British Educational Research Association conference, to be held in Edinburgh next week.
Among primary pupils, those who had learnt about the Holocaust "were more disposed to active citizenship by their understanding of individual responsibility towards racism". Three years later, however, the academics found that these attitudes had altered. Those who had studied the Holocaust at primary school were marginally more likely than their peers to believe that it was acceptable to make racist comments about Jews, blacks, Asians and refugees. But what made the greatest impact on teenagers' attitudes was not whether they had learnt about the Holocaust at primary school, but whether they were male or female.
Girls were consistently less prejudiced than boys. In particular, they were significantly less likely to be homophobic: 90 per cent of girls felt it was unacceptable to make homophobic comments, compared with 59 per cent of boys.
The researchers concluded that teaching about the Holocaust at primary school has greater benefits in the short rather than the long term. This suggests the Government was correct in its decision to send sixth-formers rather than younger pupils on day visits to Auschwitz, in a Pounds 1.5 million- a-year scheme announced earlier this year.
But the researchers also said primary and secondary staff are afraid to tackle controversial discussions effectively in class, limiting the impact of such lessons. They said: "There are teacher worries about their skills to handle open-ended discussions which they might not be able to control or direct."
Many teachers are concerned about parental disapproval. And one school avoided choosing the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE history coursework for fear of having to confront anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial among Muslim pupils.
The academics recommend that teachers should be willing to address open- ended topics, with no fixed solution. They said: "The teacher needs . to have the honesty and confidence to suggest to pupils that they are not just independent observers but have a point of view which also can, and should, be challenged."