First-hand memories of sacrifice

5th May 1995 at 01:00
With their renditions of The Lambeth Walk and We'll Meet Again, and in their period dress, they might easily have been the 11-year-olds of 1945.

Pupils at Ashton House preparatory school in Isleworth, west London, have been waiting for the VE Day anniversary since last autumn. That was when their teacher, Mary Regan, first began to broach the difficult subjects of war, international politics and man's inclination to destroy himself.

Her 14 pupils, all aged 11, know Hitler was a bad man. But they also know why the War started, who Britain's allies were, and that children suffered separation from their families, and the rationing of foods which they now take for granted.

Miss Regan has tackled the ending of the Second World War as a cross-curricular activity. In English, children have written letters and diaries as evacuees, or plays about family life in a wartime environment. In history, they have learned about Churchill and the Blitz and in science lessons they have followed recipes of the time, including cakes made without eggs.

During a six-day trip to France as part of their language learning, they visited the Normandy beaches and museum, where they watched newsreels of the D-Day landings.

Miss Regan said: "The children have become thoroughly absorbed in the VE Day commemorations. It has captured their imagination. We are encouraging them to attend as many activities and events as possible to get a good idea of what it is all about. I am fascinated by this part of our history and I suppose it has rubbed off on them. It is vital that children know about these things so we have no repetition of it in the future. We hope that by studying this they will remember and respect those people who fought for our freedom today and who sacrificed everything.

"We have had to be quite selective about what we teach. The children are too young to know about the atrocities of concentration camps and we have had to be sensitive to the fact we have a Japanese child in the class."

Pupils have been set tasks, such as collecting artefacts like old gas masks and ration books from family collections, as well as interviewing older members of their communities to discover first-hand experiences.

Guest speakers have included Cheyne Cox, a local resident, who was herself an evacuee, and this week one of the school dinner ladies told the pupils about the day she met Churchill.

Collective class reading in the run-up to the VE Day anniversary has included Ian Serraillier's The Silver Sword, Ann Holm's I am David, and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr.

Next week, Miss Regan will take her pupils to the Star and Garter home for veterans in Richmond, where they will meet ex-servicemen and women, and hear recollections from the front line.

One of the homework tasks for the Easter holiday was to visit the Imperial War Museum. The pupils all recall the mocked-up Blitz experience, how their seats shook in the air-raid shelter as bombs went off, and the scenes of devastation when they emerged.

Miss Regan believes she has been able to immerse her pupils in wartime experiences because, in an independent school, she does not have to follow the national curriculum closely.

She said: "I have every sympathy with colleagues in the state sector. I worked there myself for 16 years and I know the constraints those schools are faced with. We have placed great importance on the use of oral history, real-life experiences and trying to get the children to imagine suffering."

The message about the implications of War has definitely got through. Pupils speak of their hopes for a lasting world peace and mutual toleration. They believe that if Hitler had won the War many of them might have been killed because of their ethnic backgrounds, and that the rest of the population would probably now be speaking German.

Pupil Gemma Kemsley believes it is important for children to know about the war so they can pass on their knowledge to their own children. She said: "The War ended 50 years ago and eventually there will be no one left who remembers it."

Her classmate Kazumi Hirota said: "I think it is good to learn about the war because you can see how terrible it was, and it makes you hope it never happens again."

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