It is time to update our Remembrance assemblies

Secondary Committee member Gemma Hargraves challenges us to think about Remembrance-tide afresh, to make it resonant for our pupils and to use stories of the past to support their knowledge of the people of today.

Every year schools deliver Remembrance assemblies. Perhaps it’s the Headteacher, perhaps it’s the job of the History department. This time last year I wrote for One Big History Department about how the centenary of the tomb of the unknown soldier offered an opportunity to consider diverse stories in 2020. Now I think we can, nay we must, go one better than just slotting in stories of individuals. And we must avoid rolling out the same old stories on 11th November when we have worked so hard to diversity and ‘decolonise’ the curriculum for the rest of the year (more about that here .  Here’s why I feel so strongly about this.

I always wanted to go to Afghanistan. I had heard about this beautiful land with a history of strength and influence. Of the silk roads and beauty and culture. So, many years ago I joined the British Army and I went. I mentored Afghan troops, fought alongside them, provided air support, brought the capabilities of weapons of which the Afghan National Army could only dream. And when I came home it seemed like people didn’t even know there was a conflict there. It was the same feeling when I returned from Iraq to the bustling streets of London and it seemed surreal that people didn’t know what was happening not so very far away.

This feeling was exacerbated recently with the end of British and US involvement in Afghanistan, when suddenly it was all over the news again. It made me realise how easy it is for people to forget. The youth of today probably have a clearer picture of the trenches on the Western Front than of war amongst people in more recent conflicts. And that matters! Perhaps unusually for a History teacher I am advocating for knowledge of more recent events. But, I am not advocating for these as discrete chunks of unrelated content, but rather to broaden and update pupils’ existing knowledge base. 

Now, Remembrance Day is not a History lesson, and nor should it be. But it is an opportunity. Given that most schools study Germany at GCSE, your remembrance events could easily be linked to the character of remembrance in Germany, and how that has changed over time. Germany holds their Remembrance Day on the Sunday closest to 16th November. The day is called ‘Volkstrauertag’ and is the national day of mourning, it is also known as ‘silent day’, with music and dancing events banned in some states. As you may be aware, Germany has a difficult history with remembrance as the Nazi party tried to make it more about hero worship than remembrance. Today remembrance in Germany explicitly remembers victims of violent oppression as well as those who served their country. 

At my school we also study China at GCSE. In China, wearing the poppy as we do in Britain is frowned upon as the poppy is a vivid symbol of China’s humiliation at the hands of the European powers, specifically regarding the Opium Wars. Going down this route can also allow you to explore the experiences of the colonised, something Richard Kennet talked about in his blog here: Perhaps linking to victims of violent oppression as they do in Germany, you could take a moment to remember the treatment of Uyghur muslims in Xinjiang, another of those stories that no longer make headline news. 

Admittedly, you may feel that some of these issues are not right for Remembrance Day, or you don’t have time or energy to re-write the assembly now.  But if in 2021 we are delivering the same remembrance content as in previous years, is it still fit for purpose? Pupils may be left with a feeling of sobriety, gratitude or loss, but do they realise that for many around the world these are not historical issues but all too real today? Afghanistan has once again lost its moment in the spotlight, but the effects of foreign intervention are not so easy to forget for those who remain. And that is what I’ll be remembering this year. 

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