Teaching about the Holocaust in English Secondary Schools (2009)

Teaching About the Holocaust in English Secondary Schools: An empirical study of national trends, perspectives and practice

Before designing our CPD programme, we considered it imperative to find out more about what was already happening in classrooms across the country and to listen to teachers about their experiences, needs and challenges in teaching about the Holocaust.

Our landmark study explores when, where, how and why the Holocaust is taught in state-maintained secondary schools in England. Research began in 2008 and was published in 2009.

The researchers employed a mixed methodology over two phases. First, quantitative data was gathered via an online survey completed by 2,108 teachers. This survey contained 54 questions and was completed by teachers from a range of subjects and backgrounds. Second, qualitative data was acquired through follow-up interviews with 68 teachers in 24 schools in England.

Key findings

The research produced wide-ranging findings, relevant to academics, educators, teachers and policy-makers.

  • The Holocaust was taught in all secondary years in several subjects, with most attention in Year 9 History (aged 13 to14). Teaching time varied considerably, with an average of six hours spent on the subject.
  • Although some teachers demonstrated detailed specialist knowledge and clear understanding, others had significant gaps in subject knowledge. Many seemed to draw on popular rather than academic discourse.
  • Teachers indicated their teaching tended to be dominated by a focus on Auschwitz and the persecution of the 1930s. Scant attention was given, for instance, to pre-war Jewish life, or victims’ perspectives. This reflected and perpetuated perpetrator-orientated narratives found in many textbooks.
  • 85% of teachers believed the Holocaust should be compulsory in the secondary history curriculum, but many struggled to articulate its distinct historical significance.
  • Many teachers prioritised civic-based (e.g. focused on broad understandings of racism, prejudice, discrimination) over subject-specific teaching aims (e.g. focused on understanding the Holocaust as an historical phenomenon) . There was also uncertainty over how to define the Holocaust, though most indicated they understood the Holocaust to include various victim groups rather than focus on the particular fate of Jewish people.
  • Very few teachers received specialist professional development. 82.5% considered themselves self-taught and 77.5% wanted CPD.

This research informed our free national CPD programme for teachers in England. To date, approximately 1,000 teachers have participated in the Centre’s intensive CPD programme and more than 2,500 teachers have participated in other Centre events, symposia and conferences.

Continuity and Change over the last 10 years?

At the Centre we recognise that schools are never static, and this is also the case for the field of Holocaust education. In November 2018, the Centre launched its latest research, Continuity and Change: 10 years of teaching about the Holocaust in English Secondary Schools. This research builds on the research conducted in 2009 to explore the current landscape of Holocaust education. It aims to investigate how things have changed in the last decade as well as considering ongoing issues and challenges that teachers and students encounter when teaching and learning about this complex subject. More information about the Centre’s latest research with teachers can be found here.


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Centre for Holocaust Education