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Home front to the fore

Sean Lang reports on how the Second World War is taught in the classroom. Disputes about how best to mark VE Day are nothing new. On the day itself, one writer to The Times complained that on his way into the Thanksgiving Service in St Paul's he had to push his way through uncouth crowds singing "Roll out the barrel".

But no matter how the day itself was celebrated, it would surely have puzzled the crowds to know that by the time of the 50th anniversary, the huge military campaigns that had gripped the public's attention from the invasion of Poland to VE Day would get relatively little coverage in the classroom.

At first sight this is surprising. The saturation coverage given to the war through films and television make it a period of history to which nearly all children are exposed, so much so that John Fines, president of the Historical Association, asks in despair why it should be that the one historical figure every child in the country learns about is Hitler.

Perhaps the answer to the puzzle lies in the Second World War's place in the curriculum. The war period appears in the history curriculum for England and Wales at key stages 2 and 3, GCSE, increasingly at A-level and in the local and oral history elements at key stage 1. But the emphasis is much more on the international build-up to the war or the social impact of bombing or rationing than on the battles in Normandy or the Western Desert.

In Scotland, the emphasis is again on the nature of conflict, rather than a recounting of battles. For standard grade history, the war period is included in "International co-operation and conflict", while the higher syllabus focuses on the political events, in "Appeasement and the road to war". In the 5-14 curriculum, the war period is covered in "Understanding People in the Past", under the heading of environmental studies.

At the Royal Russell school in Croydon, head of history John Piggin, says that in covering the war he concentrates on teaching about the home front, even wheeling in a heavily disguised colleague to regale classes of 14-year-olds with tales of the Blitz. And even though the school is marking the anniversary of VE Day with a day's holiday, its main efforts are being directed towards the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

In primary schools, with children whose grandparents are too young to remember the war, the events of 1945 can be "incredibly remote", says Jon O'Connor, headteacher of Parkside First School, Borehamwood.

In lessons marking VE Day, he says the subject will be made relevant by focusing on local links, in his school's case the locality as a post-war development. But the loss of life in wartime is not dwelt upon, particularly for younger children.

The multi-cultural nature of Britain's classrooms also adds to the complexities of teaching the period. Joanne Taylor, history teacher at Haberdashers' Aske's School for Girls, Elstree, has to balance the sensitivities of Jewish and Japanese pupils in her class, and there is a danger of stirring anti-German feelings with an over-simplistic picture of the war.

The flags and street parties that marked the original VE Day also heralded a difficult post-war period and obscured the complicated tensions of the time. Perhaps in concentrating on the war's complex causes and its social impact, schools today are learning a deeper lesson than how to fry spam fritters.

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