Why meaningful Holocaust education in school is crucial

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, Dr Paula Cowan looks at how schools can teach the subject to a new generation

Paula Cowan

Holocaust Memorial Day: Why meaningful Holocaust education in school is crucial

I am part of a generation of people who were never taught about the Holocaust at school – despite studying the Second World War.

There is a significant number of people here in Scotland whose understanding of the Holocaust is reliant on films, documentaries or books. This was demonstrated to me in 1993 when, after seeing Schindler’s List, people in the foyer of the cinema shook their heads and commented: “I didn’t know anything about this.”

If we are serious about commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day, then teaching the Holocaust in schools is important.


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At the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), the Vision Schools Scotland programme is a partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust which supports upper primary and secondary school teachers who teach the Holocaust by recognising, sharing and celebrating good practice in this area. Launched in 2017 with three schools, the programme has grown to include 19 Vision Schools, and a network of 40 to 50 schools that are involved in varying stages of the programme (which you can read more about here).

Awarding schools that have displayed best practice is by far the most rewarding element, but also rewarding is the positive feedback from teachers highlighting pupils’ academic success as a result of their involvement, as well as teachers’ change of practice.

Teaching about the Holocaust in schools

I am continually inspired by the unique and creative ways in which schools in Scotland now teach the Holocaust. We have seen interdisciplinary collaboration between departments such as history, social studies, French, German and English, and teaching the Holocaust through art. Some secondary school students have become Holocaust educators themselves, passing their knowledge on to P7 pupils (in the last year of primary school) and teachers.

When asked about the advice I give to educators who are interested in teaching the Holocaust, I say:

1. Choose excellent resources

There’s no shortage of high-quality resources out there for teachers to freely access, such as those from the Holocaust Educational Trust.

2. Know your children

This is particularly for primary school teachers. It is so important to know your children before exploring this topic.  

3. Don’t rush into it – speak to those who have experience

I remember speaking to a P7 teacher who wanted to teach the Holocaust, but didn’t feel like she could. My advice to her was: wait until you feel comfortable and talk to teachers who teach the Holocaust – that’s where something like the Vision Schools Scotland network can provide support.

Hearing first-hand accounts of people’s own experiences often resonates with us the most. Some 20 years ago, I wrote two Holocaust teaching resources that were distributed to schools across Scotland. One was based on the survivor testimony of the late Ernest Levy, the other from the late Marianne Grant. Unfortunately, over time, these excellent resources have become outdated and obsolete.

Committed to the legacy of these survivors, Vision Schools Scotland, with funding from the Association of Jewish Refugees, the Gordon Cook Foundation and the Netherlee and Clarkston Charitable Trust, has produced the second edition of the Marianne Grant resource, which will be freely available to all secondary teachers in Scotland. This online resource comprises film testimony and a teacher manual, and contains recent examples of racism, anti-semitism and discrimination in Scotland.

As Spanish philosopher George Santayana noted: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

While those we are educating today have no living memory of the Holocaust, the responsibility lies with us – as educators – to keep conversations, discussions and, importantly, learning about the events alive.

Dr Paula Cowan is a reader in education at the University of the West of Scotland and director of Vision Schools Scotland

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Paula Cowan

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