Transported to another world

6th February 2009 at 00:00
Teaching about the Holocaust should be embedded in A Curriculum for Excellence. Raymond Ross reports

How do we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day? How do we deliver Holocaust education?

These questions are likely to exercise the minds of teachers more in future years, given the Scottish Government's interest in increasing awareness of Holocaust education.

One headteacher who has given the matter a lot of thought is Jon Reid who, in November 2008, was one of a party of 17 teachers who travelled to Amsterdam to visit Anne Frank's House and the Westerbork holding camp, from where she and her family were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The trip, the first of its kind organised by Learning and Teaching Scotland, was designed to encourage the participants to think about how their schools could best commemorate and teach about the Holocaust.

In Mr Reid's case, the visit not only deepened his understanding of the Shoah (Hebrew for calamity and their name for the Holocaust), it also caused him to change his mind about how his school, Drummond Community High in Edinburgh, should commemorate it.

During their visit to Anne Frank Huis, they went through a six-hour programme of tasks and lessons demonstrating different approaches to Holocaust education; and visited the Remembrance Day Trust, a Dutch government agency set up to promote Remembrance and Holocaust education. "What I think we all learned immediately was the central importance the Dutch place on the Holocaust as a nation," says Mr Reid. "All pupils are taught about it as part of the curriculum and my experiences lead me to support the growing idea that it should be embedded in A Curriculum for Excellence."

Mr Reid would be the first to admit he has come a long way in his own education in this matter. As a pupil who dropped history in S2, he received no lessons on the Holocaust, and as a former science teacher, he never came near delivering anything about it. It was a visit by survivor Eva Clark to Larbert High, where Mr Reid was depute head in January 2007, which got him thinking. This was the first time he had witnessed a whole-school commemoration event and he determined that he would pursue it in his new role at Drummond High.

"But I wanted to do something different - a more modern, contemporary approach which would make its central focus a more recent atrocity, and I thought of Darfur," he says.

His visit to Amsterdam changed his mind. "Listening to the guides at the house and at Westerbork, and looking at how the Dutch nation approaches it, convinced me that this wasn't right. It is the Holocaust we are commemorating. It can be added to, but not substituted."

His school is hosting a visit by a Darfuri survivor in the weeks following its commemoration, but the whole-school event remained centred on the Shoah with a visit from Eva Schloss, who is Anne Frank's step-sister, and a performance of the play And Then They Came for Me, which was put on at the Scottish Parliament the previous day.

Every year, Drummond sends two pupils on the Holocaust Education Trust visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. "I put my revised approach to our school captains and senior pupils, who lead on it, and they agreed this was the way to do it," he says. "We are setting up a pupil group to look at how we can embed this education in the curriculum. What they report back and recommend will be a major factor for next year and beyond."

For Mr Reid, it is clear his change of approach was not simply one of educational strategy. His account of his experience is peppered with words like "silence", "respect", "eeriness" and "disbelief"; and, beyond that, he talks of the pursuit of Holocaust education in terms of "principle", "passion" and "connectedness".

He has only one regret: that he was not exposed to Holocaust education as a pupil. It is a regret he hopes no pupils today will ever feel.

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