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History Report Spurs Controversy over Holocaust Education

The Historical Association has just released a report, entitled T.E.A.C.H.: Teaching Emotive and Controversial History 3-19, which discusses some of the problems faced by teachers and gives guidance on good practice. Page fifteen has a section that has now excited considerable press comment:

Teachers and schools avoid emotive and controversial history for a variety of reasons, some of which are well-intentioned. Some feel that certain issues are inappropriate for particular age groups or decide in advance that pupils lack the maturity to grasp them. Where teachers lack confidence in their subject knowledge or subject-specific pedagogy, this can also be a reason for avoiding certain content. Staff may wish to avoid causing offence or appearing insensitive to individuals or groups in their classes. In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship. Some teachers also feel that the issues are best avoided in history, believing them to be taught elsewhere in the curriculum such as in citizenship or religious education.

(A class of religious instruction is a legal requirement in British schools, although parents can choose to let their child opt out. In my day, the class for those pupils not studying towards a GCSE exam in the subject was used for general discussions of ethics or racism and such.)

For example, a history department in a northern city recently avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE coursework for fear of confronting anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils. In another department, teachers were strongly challenged by some Christian parents for their treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the history of the state of Israel that did not accord with the teachings of their denomination. In another history department, the Holocaust was taught despite anti-Semitic sentiment among some pupils, but the same department deliberately avoided teaching the Crusades at Key Stage 3 [11-14 years old] because their balanced treatment of the topic would have directly challenged what was taught in some local mosques.

The report goes on to cite academic educationist work that suggests that teachers can be categorised as “containers”, “avoiders” or “risk-takers”, and that the “risk-takers” are the most effective. The report also draws attention to a book, Issues in Holocaust Education, by Geoffrey Short and Carole Ann Reed.

The report also notes that many schools avoid teaching Islamic history, as it is seen as “too difficult, alien or complex to teach” (p. 17).

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