Scottish pupils know more about Vera Lynn than they do about Auschwitz. This was one of the many gaps in fifth-year pupils' knowledge of the Second World War reported in a poll by Scotland on Sunday at the beginning of this term.
Although one would have expected pupils to have a better knowledge of the Second World War, the results were hardly headline news. But they are baffling, given that the war is frequently taught at primary and secondary levels and schools hold special assemblies on Armistice Day. The blitz, evacuation and wartime songs are all popular topics in primary schools. The current focus on the Home Front may explain why pupils knew more about Vera Lynn.
But the ignorance of the Holocaust was totally predictable. Holocaust history is not required at any point in a Scottish pupil's schooling, and has always depended on committed individual teachers or heads. Curriculum designers, sadly, do not share this commitment.
Last month the Home Office issued a consultation paper on an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day scheduled for January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The first Day, in 2001, should facilitate teaching of the Nazi genocide.
One positive move from the Scottish Executive has been the introduction of the Holocaust as an optional component in the religious education curriculum for fifth-year Higher Still pupils doing Intermediate 2, starting next session. Some teachers may find it bizarre that the Holocaust is a component in RE, but not history. Others may be sceptical about senior pupils studying an aspect of the Holocaust without any historical perspective. But it could lead to more cross-curricular work with greater consultation between RE and history departments.
One barrier to teaching the Holocaust has been an unprinted policy forbidding it in certain schools. A newly appointed history teacher was told by her principal teacher that the Holocaust was "not taught in this school and definitely not taught in this department". The teacher's response was a lunchtime film club on the Holocaust, well attended by pupils. But it never led to a change in school practice.
Some may consider the topic too difficult or upsetting for primary pupils, but it has been taught to upper primary classes in several schools through the story of Anne Frank.
Primary teachers who choose to focus on the Holocaust rather than the Home Front frequently have to present a strong case to their management team.
But feedback from primary teachers indicates that once taught, the Holocaust is usually accepted by the school and integrated into its programme. The topic meets curricular requirements and develops necessary skills. There is a variety of teaching resources for this age group. And those teaching it may be more committed than they are, say, to teaching about electricity or life in the Sixties. Teachers tell of interested and stimulated pupils who produce creative work and see its relevance in their lives. They also tell of supportive and grateful parents.
A significant barrier to teaching the Holocaust in primary schools is the practice of prescribing topics for each stage rather than allowing teachers a broad choice. If the Second World War is not included, the Holocaust cannot be taught as environmental studies. (Nor can the Second World War.) Secondary and primary teachers will find it easier to integrate the Holocaust into personal and social development and religious and moral education.
Despite media awareness of the Holocaust and a variety of resources for primary and secondary pupils, teaching has not changed much over the years. Inclusion in the RE curriculum will at least give some pupils the chance to develop a deeper understanding of the human suffering in that time.
Paula Cowan teaches at Hurlford Primary, East Ayrshire, and chairs the Scottish Association of Jewish Teachers. An inservice course on the Holocaust organised by East Renfrewshire and SAJT will be held in May 2000.