Rumors Aside, Holocaust Teaching Will Remain Compulsory in Britain

Britain’s Holocaust education programs still rank among the strongest in the world.

That’s the message from British educators and government, contradicting recent reports that the Department for Education and Skills would scrap its Holocaust curriculum requirement.

“Holocaust education in Britain is compulsory and there has never been any other suggestion,” Nikki Ginsberg, a spokeswoman for the Holocaust Educational Trust, told JTA.

Several major British newspapers had reported recently that political correctness — in other words, fear of offending Muslims who oppose Israel — was spurring concerns among educators about teaching the Holocaust.

Holocaust educators believe the rumors stemmed from one passage in a 47-page report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills: A teacher in an unnamed school said she hesitated to teach the Holocaust for fear of offending Muslim students.

“Challenges and Opportunities for Teaching Emotive and Controversial History” (www.haevents.org.uk/PastEvents/Others/Teach%20report.pdf), released in April, chronicles the pressures educators face in tackling difficult issues like racism, the Crusades and the Holocaust. The report gives examples of how to handle such issues.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center wrote to British Education Secretary Alan Johnson that it was “horrified” to learn of British teachers’ reluctance to educate children about the Holocaust.

But the Holocaust Educational Trust and the American Jewish Committee quickly refuted the reports. The trust, which is funded largely by the government and the Pears Foundation, said the quote was taken out of context and that the teacher was expressing a personal feeling, albeit a troubling one

Days later, however, speculation about a crisis in Holocaust education was further fueled by an announcement that the Pears Foundation and the British Treasury were upping funding for Holocaust education by $500,000 over the next three years.

If the program was not in trouble, some wondered, why the sudden influx of cash? The timing was merely a coincidence, the head of education at the trust told JTA.

“The additional funding was in the works for a long time,” Kay Andrews said. “The new grant money simply shows [Treasury Chancellor] Gordon Brown’s continued commitment to Holocaust education. It does not mean that Holocaust education was lacking.”

“On the contrary,” she said, “the report shows that there’s some fantastic teaching going on.”

The Holocaust became part of the British national history curriculum in 1991. It is mandated for ninth-graders in England and Wales; high-school students have the option of studying the Holocaust further in religion, English and citizenship lessons.

Education experts say the program is considered among the strongest in Europe, perhaps second only to Germany, where Holocaust education is compulsory in high school and middle school. In the United States, only a handful of states require Holocaust teaching.

Britain emphasizes programs that enable high-school students to visit former concentration camps in continental Europe, often Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

The “Lessons from Auschwitz” project, which has been run by the Holocaust Educational Trust for nine years and represents the largest such program in Britain, funds 15 trips a year to Auschwitz. Joining 200 students on the trips are 35 or so teachers, journalists and members of Parliament.

Andrews said most students describe the trip as a life-changing experience that spurs them to activism when they return to Britain.

Sam Hunt, deputy head of the Sandhurst Mixed Comprehensive School in Berkshire, said teachers have been placing more emphasis on the opportunities for fostering citizenship inherent in Holocaust education.

Sandhurst programs tie in Holocaust lessons with teaching about civic duty. The school’s extensive but optional Holocaust education program for high schoolers includes trips to Auschwitz and school talks from survivors.

“We ask the students to reflect on lessons that can be applied today, like racism and the crisis in Darfur,” Hunt told JTA. “It makes them react to other issues they see around them, like bullying in school. Through Holocaust education we teach them that it’s never acceptable to be a perpetrator or a bystander.”

Hunt said reaction to the program has been phenomenal.

“I get letters from students every year saying they will never be a bystander again,” Hunt said.

After a visit to Auschwitz, one 16-year-old girl wrote to Hunt: “From studying the Holocaust, what we have learned is that we can make a difference. Our promise to you and those who died is that we will stand up for what we believe in and spread the knowledge of the Holocaust to prevent suffering like this from ever happening again.”

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