The Wiltshire market town of Wootton Bassett is no stranger to remembrance and commemoration. Paying our respects, pausing to remember, to learn and show solidarity with those who grieve or suffer is perhaps what most people know us for. So, remembrance is in the DNA of the town. This is evident in the recent WW1 centenary events, the war memorial, the annual Remembrance Day commemorations the more recent repatriations through the town, when the bodies of British soldiers were returned home – it’s a feature of our community we are proud of. It allows us to come together with shared values to reflect on the past, consider the present and work to a better, safer future – to learn lessons, perhaps, reconnect and reaffirm. Royal Wootton Bassett Academy (RWBA), is very much part of that community of memory and, as its head, I am very proud that remembrance, respect and civics lie at the heart of the school’s educational experience.
One of the things that first struck me about the school was its deep commitment to empowering young people to safeguard the future by learning about the past. The importance afforded civics and the idea of service, community engagement and the wider world was hugely impressive. Remembrance, respect and community were not superficial, but deeply embedded in the school’s mission and curriculum; we are a global school in a local community. I was most struck by the school’s marking of Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Unlike some schools, this wasn’t some tokenistic assembly, a one-off nod to Holocaust education. Rather the marking of HMD was in tune with the school’s values; it was something lived and not just laminated.
RWBA has a whole school programme of Holocaust, genocide and human rights education (HGP), with its own Lead Practitioner and designated senior leadership team link. Since 2009, the programme has coordinated aspects of the regular curriculum that speaks to these issues and themes, whilst offering stage/age appropriate materials and experiences in the ilearn and personal development programmes. It has provided enrichment and extra-curricular opportunities and always been a civic and community driven agenda that has facilitated family and community learning. It is something we are very proud of, but HMD each year provides one of the focal points for this work; it’s an opportunity to ‘join the dots’ of what has been going on across the school, a chance to engage with the community, a time to come together and recommit to the values of learning from genocide for a better, safer, future.
In 2012 our school became a UCL Centre for Holocaust Education ‘Beacon School’. This recognised our existing commitment to Holocaust education, but also moved our practice forward significantly. It’s made a huge difference to our school, helped us retain staff, engage with research, forge new partnerships, and brought numerous benefits, new and enriching experiences to our students – we have so much evidence of its impact – and the relationship with UCL and the Centre has been fabulous.
But HMD renews this commitment annually. Beacon School status lies with the ‘school’, not with a single committed lead teacher, and so every year as we come together to mark HMD it is an opportunity to ensure the whole school community is involved and aware. HMD gives students, staff, parents and the wider community a great sense of pride in our identity as a UCL Beacon School and as a result, our students, staff, governors and parental body are aware of our work in Holocaust and genocide education, reaffirm their support and value it – they feel part of it and are invested. This year’s ‘Torn from Home” theme is particularly relevant.
When we became a Beacon School I felt it important that to lead I should do the Holocaust training. There was so much about that ‘Unpacking the Holocaust’ CPD day that was powerful and transformative. Writing this I am reminded of Leon Greenman and his family being ‘Torn from Home’ and of what ‘home’ meant after Leon’s liberation. If you haven’t done the session you must – it raises so many questions, heartbreakingly informing about the specificity of the Holocaust, but also of the relevance and traces so prevalent in our world today. In the same session I learned about Anka Bergman, who – having survived Terezin, Auschwitz and even giving birth at Mauthausen – returned home to Prague to darkness and ‘‘…there it hit you. That you came back to nothing.” To commemorate and educate about that reality, that experience, is surely what HMD and being a Beacon School is all about. Of course, to then have Eva Clarke, the baby Anka astonishingly gave birth to at Mauthausen, speak at your school and share in our HMD is extraordinary.
But, as news reports this week remind us – being ‘Torn from Home’ is not a historical footnote – it’s a lived reality for so many today. As I write, the UNHCR fears about 170 migrants have died in the Mediterranean, and there is ongoing concern for the wellbeing of the Rohingya ‘Torn from Home’ in Myanmar and the fate of other groups around the world. In my own school are some young people for whom the theme is deeply personal – this is not simply academics, but about values and rights, about identity, belonging and what it is to be human.