Simon Rocker

Children should learn about war in school not TikTok

Too few teachers have the tools they need to help pupils understand the war in Gaza


How can teachers teach children about the Middle East? (Photo: Getty Images)

February 15, 2024 12:01

When the anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate recently polled more than 4,600 secondary-school teachers in the UK, more than half reported that their pupils had been talking about the Israel-Hamas War. But only half of the teachers felt confident discussing it with their students.

Given the passions ignited by this conflict, one could hardly blame schools for wanting to keep it at arm’s length. But if schools don’t deal with it, who will? If they don’t, children are left to the mercy of a social media awash with misinformation and propaganda and driving them more towards anger than understanding.

Here and there a few opportunities exist to study the subject within the formal curriculum, including an optional GCSE unit offered by one exam board. Last summer it was taken by just 44 schools, representing barely one per cent of those in England and Wales. The good news: that’s up from the 27 sitting it a couple of years earlier.

Seven years ago an enterprising former grammar school history teacher, Michael Davies, launched an initiative to stem the tide of ignorance. Called Parallel Histories, it uses the “dual-narrative” approach, encouraging students to look at events from both sides of the conflict and by examining historic sources. In one session a while back, a Jewish school hosted a group from a London school whose study body was predominantly Muslim. The programme culminated in a debate in which the visitors had to defend Israel’s tactics in the First Intifada, while the Jewish school students had to present the Palestinian case.

A few weeks ago I was talking to some teachers who had taught at similar, Muslim-majority schools, one of whom had successfully introduced Parallel Histories. At the start of an initial eight-week course, some students had revealed some “quite worrying” misconceptions that could be quickly challenged, the teacher explained; by the end of their induction, they were able to put forward the Israeli perspective.

Young people are far more receptive to the dual-narrative approach than adults, who may have become fixed in their views, she believes. The school explores the topic not simply in history but in RE and geography, too and has opened up to other stories of conflict, such as the partition of India.

Of course, students may not come out waving blue and white flags. But they glean that difficult disputes can be resolved only with a grasp of detail and not by emotive sloganeering. By the end of the course, the teacher told me, they had become more preoccupied with trying to find solutions than attaching blame.

Another teacher, working in a deprived area in the north of England, was using Parallel Histories for an extra-curricular history club, which had started with five participants and grown to around 20. That this was purely a voluntary activity underlines the commitment of teachers and students. These were children willing to learn. When they started, “a lot of what they said was presenting personal opinion as fact,” the teacher said. “Now they have started talking about this in a mature, informed way.”

A third teacher who was itching to teach properly about the conflict had been left frustrated by the nervousness of the school’s leadership. “This is the first time in history kids are watching a war on their phones,” she said. And yet when they come to school with all sorts of questions, “they don’t get to find answers”.

The topic should be taught, she believes, otherwise “you are creating another generation that is so ignorant on the history of the conflict yet are so high on emotions”. And that’s not how we want them to emerge from education.

One reason she suggested the school might have been avoiding the subject was fear it might lead to a child saying something inappropriate in class, which would them have to be reported to the anti-radicalisation Prevent programme. How realistic a fear that is I don’t know, but it is surely better that a school can uncover prejudices in order to tackle them than these be left to fester and potentially grow more virulent online.

With some strength of feeling, she told me: “My children are more interested in the history that impacts the very world they are living in than the history of Henry VIII and what he did to his wives.”

When a conflict dominates the headlines for weeks, as this one has done, then there is surely a case for ensuring an educational follow-up. We can’t expect children go to rummaging through the archives of iPlayer to look up some old, heavyweight TV documentary on the subject. They need the tools of their times.

While the government has issued guidance to schools on discussing the Mid-East conflict, Hope Not Hate says this is not nearly enough. Teachers need adequate teaching resources — and the charity is surely right in calling for action.

February 15, 2024 12:01

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