Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration and education: Royal Wootton Bassett DNA, School Leadership and ‘The Bassett Way’

Holocaust Survivor Freddie Knoller BEM (left) and RWBA Headteacher George Croxford

The Wiltshire market town of Wootton Bassett is no stranger to remembrance and commemoration. Now, ‘Royal’ Wootton Bassett, paying our respects, pausing to remember, to learn and show solidarity for those who grieve or suffer is perhaps what most people know us for. So, remembrance is in the DNA of the town; as the Headteacher of the towns secondary school, Royal Wootton Bassett Academy (RWBA), we are very much part of that community of memory and I am very proud that remembrance, respect and civics lie at the heart of ‘The Bassett Way’ educational experience.

Upon interview one of the things that struck me about the school was its unique commitment to empowering young people to safeguard the future by learning about the past, in particular, the marking of Holocaust Memorial Day. 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 laminated – indeed there is an ongoing and much valued relationship with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and their CEO Olivia Marks-Woldman.

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, parent 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. Each year HMD provides that impetus and reminder, and this year it couldn’t be more resonant with its ‘Stand Together’ theme.

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 the powerful case of a collective rather than individual act of ‘Standing Together’ – Le Chambon – that we talked about during the ‘Being Human?’ session. If you haven’t done it, 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. What a compelling narrative of community cohesion, inclusion and belonging to share with young people! It enhanced my own understanding of complicity and compliance, the role of perpetrators, collaborators, bystanders and rescuers/resistors and in turn built my confidence to tackle these issues in the classroom and beyond.

In another UCL CPD opportunity, a twilight session on ‘British Responses to the Holocaust’ I was challenged to question ‘the stories we choose to tell ourselves’. I learned more about the example of Sir Nicholas Winton. I’m of a generation old enough to recall that evocative TV moment when news reached the public of what Nicky had done, and I’ve been honoured to welcome his daughter Barbara, and one of the rescued children John Fieldsend, to the school – but reframing this hugely powerful story to the world today and the work of a fellow Winton ‘child’ Lord Alf Dubs in relation to child refugees was unnerving and powerful. What does ‘Stand Together’ mean if we don’t consider the historical lessons for our contemporary world?

When I read some of the archival letters and notes from the 1930s and 40s regards interned Germans or about survivor refugees coming to Britain then, it shed new light on the reality today. As I write, the UNCHR fears a migrant’s boat has sunk in the English Chaneel, and there is ongoing concern for the wellbeing of the Rohinga torn from their Myanmar homes and the fate of the Uyghurs in China, and other groups around the world. In my own school, like in so many others across the country – there are some young people for whom the #StandTogether theme is deeply personal – this is not simply academics, but about values and rights, about identity, belonging and what it is to be human. To commemorate the past and educate about the contemporary, that experience, is surely what HMD and being a Beacon School is all about. HMD can enable Beacon Schools to shine and flourish, providing a platform to bring their year-round efforts to the fore.

This year’s theme, as often HMD annual themes do, provides a mirror to the present as much as it does the past: together, marking HMD and our Beacon School status has become a vital pillar of our safeguarding strategy. Holocaust education helps reinforce issues of not standing by. It helps us celebrate and identify opportunities for community cohesion, and in this year’s theme we have been able to explore British values – by exploring case studies within British responses to the Holocaust. Tutors have reported that students are more accepting, tolerant and open-minded, more respectful, empathetic and inclusive. This is especially important for a largely mono-cultural school and for our efforts to ensure students are outward facing and prepared to engage in an international context. Without doubt it has contributed significantly to our RE/SMSC provision and expertise. For me as Head, I want academic excellence and holistic experiences for my students. I want young people leaving RWBA to be informed, engaged, inspired and empowered, equipped to be empathetic and active global citizens who can give to society. Being a Beacon School and marking HMD2020 is a key part of that, a truly embedded and valued part of the ‘Bassett Way’.

If you are truly, and authentically, leading and playing your part this HMD then I would expect fellow school leaders to be exploring the ‘Stand Togther’ theme, its historical context and contemporary relevance, in rich, innovative and meaningful ways – beyond leading assemblies or welcoming survivor or guest speakers. Here at RWBA, year on year, our staff embrace HMD and this year is no exception. One example is our creative engagement with this being the 75th anniversary of the Auschwitz-Birkenau liberation. We have 74 tutor groups at the school and a Maddog Rugby Academy cohort, each making a memorial flame that will contribute to a whole school art installation and see RWBA symbolically ‘Stand Together. Having visited Auschwitz myself I feel it vital we educate about such sites, in stage and age appropriate, creative ways. Non- specialist teachers from across the Academy contribute and actively engage, whether in the case studies explored in each year group (for example, Year 10 will reflect on a Bosnian testimony, given this year marks the 25th anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica) or in our creative rewriting of the Niemoller poem. I think, when HMD is endorsed with strong SLT leadership your whole school Holocaust education takes off, where cross curricular or interdisciplinary approaches can flourish.

The training we have benefitted from as a UCL Beacon School has also shaped the quality of our HMD provision. Its approach focuses upon developing an enquiring mind, questioning and building resilience and criticality which I think is massively, massively powerful. The ‘Being Human?’ and ‘Surviving Survival’ sessions are extraordinary in that regard and have influenced our HMD2019 thinking as well as feature in the upcoming Year 9 Holocaust Day. We have a staff here who will just go for it, and our whole staff love it, are proud of it, and have developed as better teachers for it. My staff are equipped to explore controversial, challenging or sensitive issues because the training and support has given colleagues confidence, skills and tool-kit they can apply – whether in exploring the emotive Leon standing together against racism and fascism post war or tackling contemporary stereotypes of refugees and reflecting on Winton’s and Sendler’s stories. This years’ ‘Stand Togther’ theme has resonated with staff and students alike.

The one thing that I would say to fellow schools’ leaders this HMD or who are considering applying to become ‘Beacon Schools’, is to absolutely go for it! Go with it, support it in every way you can. Be seen to absolutely, overtly support commemoration and educational opportunities in your school and communities. Make sure your leadership team are on board. If as Head you can’t get to an event or classroom, you make damn sure someone else from SLT is there, but I think overtly supporting it, try to be part of it, to show the students and staff that you’re interested, that the subject matter is important, that both from a curriculum and holistic perspective its valued in your schools.

But more than that, I would really urge you to be the outward face of local Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations, to lead by example and champion this work with your parents, staff, governors and community. I truly feel marking HMD2020 is a school leaders moral and educational imperative, it contributes so much to a school community – especially in times of such political, social, economic, religious and racial division, with antisemitism and hate on the rise – we need this timely commemorative reminder and educational opportunity to be embraced, its outcomes are often so valuable and unexpected. Go for it!  

George Croxford is Headteacher at Royal Wootton Bassett Academy and CEO of the RWBATrust. He is a long-standing supporter of the Centre’s work and is proud to lead a UCL ‘Quality Mark’ Beacon School.





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