How should Holocaust education be taught in schools?

By James Clark, Education Editor, SAGE Publishing

At the official launch of Paula Cowan and Henry Maitles’ new book, Understanding and Teaching Holocaust Education, leading Holocaust education figures and scholars spoke about the role and importance of Holocaust education in both contemporary schooling and wider society. Reflections from the speakers who spoke at the event are included below:

Alex Maws, Head of Education at the Holocaust Educational Trust

Alex Maws spoke passionately about the position of  Holocaust teaching in the school curriculum in England, arguing that ‘Holocaust education’ is a debatable term open to ambiguous interpretation and that its inclusion in the curriculum is, by itself, not enough and can easily lead to superficial approaches that fail to engage with the realities of the subject. In doing so he stressed the need for careful examination of how this ‘highly emotive and nuanced topic’ is taught.

Dame Helen Hyde, Chair of Education Committee, National Holocaust Commission

The second speaker was Dame Helen Hyde, former Headmistress of Watford Grammar School for Girls and currently Chair of Education Committee, National Holocaust Commission. Graciously revealing that she had already read Paula and Henry’s book from cover to cover, she praised its currency and relevance for 2017 stating that: ‘it is really important that this book has been published at this time’, and that it could help teachers to engage with the complexities of this topic arguing that: ‘if you don’t make an attempt to understand the Holocaust you can’t teach it effectively’.

Paula Cowan, co-author of Understanding and Teaching Holocaust Education

Paula Cowan, co-author of Understanding and Teaching Holocaust Education and Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of the West of Scotland, spoke about the underlying ethos of the book and that she and her co-author Henry had written it ‘to appeal to a wide range of people in teaching, including those who may not know about Holocaust education in any real detail’. Paula reflected on the worrying rise of anti-Semitic events that had taken place since they had started the project, including the rise of post-Brexit xenophobia and the increased levels of reported anti-Semitism in US and Poland in recent months. These were not things she could have predicted at the outset and underlined the importance of education as a means for addressing this disturbing trend.

Henry Maitles, co-author of Understanding and Teaching Holocaust Education

In a brief and pointed speech Professor Henry Maitles underlined an important message that is highly relevant to current polarised debate on immigration that ‘refugees today must be recognised and treated as human beings; this is a key lesson from the Kindertransport’, and that the challenging nature of the Holocaust should not be seen as a barrier for teachers as ‘there are no no-go areas for Holocaust education’.

Sir Eric Pickles MP

The final speaker, Sir Eric Pickles MP, provided an interesting contrast to the educational speakers drawing from his experiences as the UK’s Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, a post to which he was appointed in 2015. He spoke at length of the ‘insidious’ challenges to the facts about the Holocaust, and more recent acts of genocide that he has personally experienced on social media, and how posts he has made on official visits to the sites of the Treblinka extermination camp, and the Srebrenica Massacre have drawn an immediate response from online deniers disputing the history of what happened. These worrying instances have demonstrated that, for him, Holocaust education ‘is not just an academic process, it is a battle of ideas and reason to be won’ and educators must challenge constantly these ‘alternative facts’.

Find out more about Understanding and Teaching Holocaust Education here.

All photos courtesy of University of the West of Scotland Marketing and Communications.


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