Holocaust trips in jeopardy

24th October 2008 at 01:00

Auschwitz is the epitome of inhumanity. It defines what we understand by barbarism, and stands out among the atrocities of the 20th century - indeed, of the 21st century.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum is visited annually by hundreds of thousands of European school students. At the very least, such visits are regarded sceptically as "pilgrimages" which are tokenistic to one's understanding of the European dimension of the Second World War. Yet even such a token challenges the growing number of Holocaust "deniers", as students can defiantly say: "I was there and know what I saw."

Since the first Scottish schools' visit to Auschwitz in 2005, the Holocaust Education Trust has organised its Lessons from Auschwitz project, which includes a day visit to the memorial museum for Scottish schools. With Westminster funding, the project offered this opportunity, typically, to two senior pupils and a teacher from each secondary school in Scotland; this year's group went out last week.

The funding of Pounds 200 for each pupil meant that schools were required to contribute a further Pounds 100. Last year alone, more than 300 Scottish pupils and 100 teachers from 31 of the 32 authorities took part. While the findings on the value of this have not been published yet, as the researchers of this study we would like to point out that the response from local authorities, schools and participants to our research request has been staggering; directors of education intimated that they will do their utmost to support our research because their pupils and teachers got so much out of the experience.

It is therefore with some dismay that we find that the future of Lessons From Auschwitz in Scotland is now under threat for financial and political reasons. The difficulty is that the Westminster Government and several MSPs argue that these trips should continue, with Treasury ring-fenced funding of Pounds 150,000. However the recent concordat agreement between local authorities and the SNP Government has got rid of ring-fencing, and it is now up to each authority to decide whether they wish to continue with the trips or not.

In years of plenty, that might be feasible but in lean times (which is where we are now) this funding will be a challenge for most authorities. It is hard to believe that the Scottish Government wants the concordat arrangement to operate in such a way that unique initiatives like this are in jeopardy - especially given the public acknowledgment from Maureen Watt, Minister for Schools and Skills, that such visits are life-changing.

If this is being fought out in the heated atmosphere between Westminster and Holyrood, or between MSPs, then the politicians and civil servants need to stop trying to score points. They should try to see the bigger picture of developing anti-genocide and human rights awareness among pupils in schools, which is surely a central aim of education for citizenship and responsible citizenship for all UK pupils.

Given that this Treasury funding comes under the leadership of a Prime Minister who was born and educated in Scotland, it is rather ironic that pupils in England are likely to continue to benefit from the Auschwitz initiative, while our pupils might not.

Paula Cowan is a senior lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland; Henry Maitles is reader at Strathclyde University.

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