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Oh, what a moral War

Children risk believing that the Second World War was just a glorious camping holiday unless teachers tackle the difficult issues. Linda Blackburne opens a 3-page report. Appalling though it seems to most adults, the Holocaust is just another story to many young children today. To them, it's as distant as the Battle of Hastings or the Crusades. For some, not even their grandparents have memories of the Second World War.

But as Britain throws itself into VE Day celebrations, history teachers and academics are united in their belief that not only is the world at war a crucial part of children's history curriculum but so is the often neglected legacy of five years of death and destruction.

The Welfare State and the landmark 1944 Education Act arose out of the ashes of war - "tame" history maybe compared to the Holocaust and the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima (two compulsory subjects in the history curriculum for 11 to 14-year-olds) but critical if pupils are to understand their lives today.

One former primary headteacher who feels passionately about a moral understanding of the war and its legacy is Dr David Parker, teacher trainer and principal lecturer in history at Plymouth University. He is concerned that too many primary children learn about the Blitz, evacuation and rationing without understanding why the world went to war for the second time in 23 years.

Bombing, broken families and the scarcity of food are obviously subjects which young children can comprehend, but, he says, too many pupils are taught an "extremely sanitised" version of the War because primary teachers often have had little history training and are unhappy about handling sensitive issues such as genocide and racism.

"Teachers think it's dreadful to talk about Germany in the Second World War in the present climate of Europe. They think the Holocaust is difficult so they do the air raids and the Blitz and they play Glenn Miller and the Andrew Sisters' records.

"Children end up thinking that the War was really a terribly exciting camping holiday. But it was a very moral War. Most people knew what they were fighting for. We were fighting Germany and wanting to wipe Nazism from the face of the earth.

"It's not difficult to teach. It was a hatred of the time. It is pure national curriculum history - continuity and change. It is good history teaching to get that across. Children have to understand that friendships and hatred between nations change."

Roy Hughes, a primary head and chairman of the Historical Association's primary history committee, believes he "over-censored" his teaching of the Holocaust in previous years, but will attempt to give the children a deeper understanding this year. He says: "Some children see the Holocaust as just another story. I always present it with a degree of caution because the horror is so great that you might damage small children in some way."

Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the author of a number of 20th-century history books, agrees with Dr Parker that there can be a danger in primary schools of concentrating too much on the Blitz. However, he would not recommend teaching the Holocaust to primary pupils. He says: "It is very delicate and sensitive and teachers must embark on it with particular care and feeling. It might not be appropriate to bring it in."

The problems of teaching the Holocaust do not diminish in secondary schools.

Paul Johnston, head of history at the London Oratory School, has found that the best way is by showing Thames TV's hour-long World at War Holocaust video without comment to 15-year-olds. Many 14-year-olds, he said, were not mature enough to cope with it.

Dr Tate has seen a "disastrous" lesson where pupils laughed at the footage of concentration camps. But Carol White, chair of the Historical Association's secondary committee, who has also seen children laugh at pictures of the camps, says this is a natural defensive reaction to something horrific and children had to be properly prepared.

Robert Medley, a Historical Association council member who teaches at Feltham Community School in Hounslow, decided against showing the World at War video at his secondary school because it is too "grim". Mr Medley teaches the Holocaust in religious education lessons under the unit called "prejudice", and believes any one of us could go along the path of genocide.

The "philosophy" of genocide is an important part of teaching the War, he believes, as is the importance of teaching what happened on the Eastern Front as well as the Home Front. For example, how many children - or even adults - have heard of the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history which lasted 49 days in 1943, involved thousands of tanks and two million German and Russian troops?

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