Reflections on the First World War centenary

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With the centenary of the First World War set to be the major theme of the year ahead, our headteacher diarist reflects on the issues this raises for schools.

Returning to school earlier this month, my thoughts turned to the year ahead. Although we all know that for teachers “new year” really occurs in September each year (although usually without the party and fireworks), I still think that it is worthwhile taking stock and looking forward to the new calendar year along with the rest of the population. 

I am sure that teachers are no better or worse than the rest of the population at coming up with, and subsequently breaking, resolutions.

Thinking about 2014, one does not need a crystal ball to come up with one of the, if not the, major theme of the year – primarily because it occurred 100 years ago. 

The anniversary of the First World War looks set to dominate the year ahead, with many commemorative events planned and numerous books, films, and television series appearing over the next few months (in fact, due to our modern inability to wait for an anniversary actually to arrive, many books dealing with the First World War were already appearing in the shops towards the end of last year).

Clearly this is a major anniversary and while no doubt plenty of other things will happen in 2014, it seems to me that there is a very real chance that the defining event of 2014 will be the commemoration of the outbreak of a war 100 years ago. 

And in many ways, I think that this is as it should be. The First World War, while no longer strictly in “living” memory, had such a massive impact on much of what occurred over the course of the subsequent century that in this case I think that it would be difficult to overdo the commemoration.

However, the anniversary does, I think, raise some issues for schools, and in particular the way that children are taught about the First World War.

Michael Gove’s recent comments about the war being seen by many only through such series as Blackadder caused the usual amount of controversy, largely because of Mr Gove’s suggestion that left-wing academics were only too happy to feed myths about the mistakes made by an out-of-touch elite in the conduct of the war.

Leaving to one side any political point scoring, it is important that children learn about the First World War. There is nothing wrong with some of that “learning” coming from a show such as Blackadder, provided of course that it is not presented as fact and is used as a way into the subject that encourages children to want to learn more about the war.

Currently, often due to restrictions in the curriculum, teaching about the First World War is fairly limited. For most pupils, the First World War was a war between Germany and Britain which took place in France in the trenches. This is perhaps not surprising, as it is these images of trench warfare that have come to define the First World War in Britain. The wider aspects of the conflict tend to be covered much more superficially, if at all. For example, it is doubtful if many children would have any real understanding of why it is called the First World War.

This year represents a real opportunity to broaden the teaching of the First World War. Although, teachers may feel constrained by the national curriculum, the number of commemorative events occurring throughout the year offers us the chance to engage all our students in this important subject.

The impact of the First World War on our modern world is so extensive, that some degree of understanding of the war and its aftermath is an essential part of any student’s education. The best commemoration we as schools can offer in 2014 is to provide our students with a proper understanding of the context and outcomes of the First World War.

  • Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.


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