World War II is studied up to three times at school, yet pupils' attitudes to that epoch-defining conflict stay stubbornly simplistic until key stage 4. Paul Goalen argues that history should be taught to all up to age 16
World War II is the history topic most likely to make children feel proud to be British. That is the main finding of my research into the role of history teaching in the development of national identity. The Allied victory in 1945 was widely interpreted by children as a British victory, and 14 out of 24 pupils interviewed at the end of key stage 3 explained that they felt proud because "we won".
When asked why World War II made them proud to be British, typical responses included: " 'Cos they won it, they were the underdogs and they came out winning"; "I suppose the fact that we are not all speaking German now makes me feel happy and proud"; "We made the Germans sign the peace treaty and the Germans were obeying us and making us big"; "Because we held off Germany for quite a while because they couldn't get across and we did well. We had good ideas".
In a second research project I extended the sample to include children at key stages 2 and 4 as well as key stage 3, but their answers were very similar. They had all studied the key stage 2 topic "Britain since the 1930s", which includes work on the war. Nine out of 12 children at the end of key stage 2 said the war made them feel proud to be British.
Why? "Because we won the war"; "We rationed our food and we didn't go round killing everyone who supported the Germans in England"; "It makes you feel a bit powerful, a bit of authority over Germany".
At key stage 3, nine out of 12 pupils said that studying the world wars or World War II had made them feel proud to be British. But only half of the 12 pupils interviewed at the end of key stage 4 felt proud to be British because of the war.
This must partly be explained by the fact that only half of my key stage 4 sample had studied a Modern World History GCSE course, the remainder having followed the Schools History Project course, which does not cover World War II. Nevertheless, "winning" the war seems to have had a profound effect on many of the youngsters interviewed, and it is worth pointing out that if candidates follow a Modern World History course for GCSE and have studied Britain since the 1930s at key stage 2, they will have studied the war at least three times while at school.
The first project also revealed that some topics made pupils at key stage 3 feel ashamed to be British. Four children mentioned slavery, while others cited the generals in World War I, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the 19th-century cholera epidemics, the Victorian treatment of children, and the bombing of German schools and children during World War II.
The second research project, however, found that at key stage 2 eight out of 12 children claimed that none of the topics studied made them ashamed to be British. But, by the end of key stage 3, almost all of the interviewees mentioned at least one topic that left them critical of some aspect of Britain's past. These included eight mentions for slavery, and three for appeasement.
At the end of key stage 4, 10 of the 12 interviewees mentioned a topic that had left them questioning their country's actions. For instance among pupils who had studied the Irish question one referred to the way the British "just went over to another country and completely decided to control it"; another thought the British had been "pretty evil" in Ireland. But for the interviewees at this level it wasn't a question of being proud or ashamed of being British. They were able to distinguish between their criticisms of the actions of former governments and blaming the British today for past mistakes. As one put it: "You can't blame the Germans now for Nazism."
So what are we to make of these responses? First, we need to ask whether World War II is studied too much - across three key stages - and too simply. It is noteworthy that none of the interviewees acknowledged the contribution of the US and the USSR to the Allied victory.
Sophistication in interpreting the war seemed to emerge only in key stage 4. At key stage 2 it seemed as though the British could do no wrong, and at key stage 3 there was no attempt to distinguish between criticism of past behaviour and attitudes towards the nation today. If this kind of sophisticated response begins to emerge only at key stage 4, perhaps we should insist on some history being included as part of the core curriculum at key stage 4 in the new millennium.
Paul Goalen is head of the history department at Homerton College, Cambridge