Making VE day more than a celebration

7th April 1995 at 01:00
Sue Bennett on valuable ways to commemorate the allied victory in the war.

Wartime recipe books are already being scanned, bunting collected and song sheets stapled in readiness for a variety of local and national events. All over the country, schools, local communities and individuals are preparing to commemorate and celebrate the 50th anniversary of VE Day on May 8 and VJ Day on August 15.

Many children and young people will take part in street parties, parades and other recreations of the period. Enjoyable activities like these are important because theyhelp stimulate curiosity about the past. But unless pupils can be helped to understand the significance of the events themselves the real purpose of the anniversaries will be missed.

Two generations separate today's pupils from the Second World War. Events which are still fresh in many people's memories seem very distant to members of another generation. For those who lived through the war years, the purpose of commemoration on 1995 is obvious. It is to mark their achievement, first in defeating powerful forces preparing for an invasion which would most probably have led to death or imprisonment for millions in Britain, and second in helping to liberate Europe and the Far East from occupation. But for children and young people the reasons for the celebrations this summer may be less clear.

To help teachers develop pupils' knowledge of the era, the events which led up to VE and VJ Days, the consequences of the war and the significance of this year's commemorations, the Department for Education, with the support of the Northern Ireland Office, the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office, has commissioned two resource packs, one for primary and one for secondary schools.

The packs, designed to resemble an original Red Cross food parcel, are being sent with a special message from the Queen. They contain a teacher's guide, containing an outline account of the war and teaching ideas; as well as teaching resources, including facsimile posters, newspapers and other documents. Also included are two videos, one for secondary schools and one for primary.

The secondary video contains wartime film clips which together tell the story of the conflict in Europe. The primary school video follows six children on a journey of enquiry, finding out what happened on VE and VJ Days, and why these events are significant today. During their quest for information about VE and VJ Days, the children in the primary video visit the village of Uley in Gloucestershire. Here they meet Muriel Paish, who was the village school mistress during the war.

Thirteen men from this small village died in different theatres of war. The village playing field and pavilion were bought from money subscribed in their memory. Thirteen trees have recently been planted round the field, one for each person who died. Through meeting Miss Paish the children learn about the arrival of evacuees in the village, the fireworks on VE night and the village party. They also discover the cost of the war to the village and why survivors see it as important to commemorate those who gave their lives so that succeeding generations might have freedom.

The Second World War was a global war, involving more than 50 countries and necessitating a degree of co-operation between countries and people never known before. The teachers' guides aim to raise awareness of the diversity of people who contributed to the war effort. For example, among those who fought to save Britain from invasion in the summer of 1940 were pilots from Australia, Canada, India, Jamaica, New Zealand, Poland, Sierra Leone and South Africa.

The teaching resources also enable pupils to study the ways in which people worked together in Britain during the war.The co-operation between people from different social classes and nationalities helped to engender a desire for a better world. The resources enable pupils to study the changes brought about after the war, such as the creation of the National Health Service.

The materials stress the need to provide pupils with background knowledge so that they can consider the reasons for the war and its consequences, and thereby understand the significance of the anniversaries. The teachers' guides provide pointers to some of these issues, including changes in Britain's position in the world, the setting up of the United Nations and the hopes for European unity. Secondary pupils needa secure background of knowledge to tackle the sensitive issues that any study of the period must address. The Holocaust, the bombing of civilians, the treatment of prisoners of war and civilians in occupied countries and the use of the atomic bomb raise moral issues on both sides.

The secondary video begins with an extract from the film Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. In scenes from the Nuremburg Rally, Hitler is shown using symbols from the past to reinforce his power, demonstrating that it is possible to use the past to create a misplaced sense of national identity.

o The resource packs are being sent free to all schools in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and in Scotland are available on request from the Scottish Office.

Sue Bennett is professional officer for history at the School Curriculum and Assessment Council

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