Former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Richards of Herstmonceux has urged the government to make the history of modern conflicts compulsory in schools.

His plea comes after a Forces Network’s report revealed that over half of 18-24-year-olds are not aware that Britain’s Armed Forces were involved in the Second World War.

Currently, the only compulsory element within the national curriculum is studying, “one challenge for Britain, Europe of the wider world 1901 to the present day.”

The study of both World Wars is not seen as essential within the present curriculum.

However, is it a lack of interest in the past, or a lack of resources, that is to blame for a generation’s gap in conflict knowledge?

last bugler
Picture: MoD

How important is teaching conflict involvement at school?

Lord Richards GCB CBE DSO believes the lack of coverage to be a great shame and a vital point to rectify:

“It is always important, especially at this Remembrance time of year, to think about those thousands of people who have given their lives for our country since the end of World War 2.

“It is very disappointing that the public does not know more about the Armed Forces’ role in defending our country and our allies.”

Forces News got in touch with a current secondary school history teacher, who did not want to be named. She confirmed the importance of military history being taught:

“It helps shapes the way the world goes and it is needed to show how we got to the point we are at."

On the national curriculum website, it describes history education as not only engaging but also useful and introspective. Going on to say that history helps students gain a better understanding of the world and its inhabitants:

“[History helps] pupils understand the complexity of people’s lives, the process of change, the diversity of societies and relationship between the different groups, as well as their own identity and the challenges of time.”

Teaching kids about the atrocities of the past can also act as a preventative measure for the future.

Speaking to the Guardian, Adèle Geras an English writer for young children, teens and adults said:

“"I have an old-fashioned view that it's very important to know our own history. We will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past without this historical knowledge. The more violent and senseless, the more we have to try and make sense of it somehow."

The report's findings were published ahead of Armistice Day

What is the current curriculum?

The history curriculum has been altered significantly over the past few years, most notably by former Education Secretary, Michael Gove in 2013 - changes that were heavily contested.

Michael Gove made the teaching of the Holocaust mandatory and stipulated that British history must form a minimum of 40% of the assessed content. 

Conor Campbell, a Doctoral researcher in history at Queen’s University Belfast said he had ample amount of time dedicated to the subject, but that the approach was perhaps too simplistic:

“From my personal experience, military history was taught quite enthusiastically at school. I did two separate modules at GCSE level on the First and Second World Wars. The armed forces themselves were also explored with an appropriate level of consideration and empathy, although more could have been done to complicate dominant narratives surrounding these conflicts.”

Our history teacher, who's taught in her current position for over a decade, told us that: “Schools are stuck between a rock and a hard place, public sector workers, especially teachers always received criticism.

“The problem is there’s a lot of it [history] to teach and a finite amount of time. We have to consider what we teach in years 7,8 and 9 to prepare the students for difficult GCSEs.”

Under time pressure and with limited sources, the education system delivers the best history teaching it has available.

Picture: MoD

Why is it not compulsory?

Teaching such a complex subject demands the right amount of attention and it can't be oversimplified.

Many conflicts are not always as easy as right versus wrong. To do as the government, wish and, “help pupils understand the complexity of people’s lives”, different points of views must be considered.

Interestingly, the UK is one of the only European countries where history is not a compulsory subject throughout a student's education. 

This means the UK takes the same stance as countries such as Albania in letting students drop the subject.

British Army Soldiers WWII

What can be done?

One suggestion is that if we are going to dedicate more time to teaching about the Great Wars, we also need to remember the great failures and perhaps more controversial episodes.

Therefore, according to Conor:

“Encouraging reflection upon the cost of war on all sides, the nature of Britain’s complicated historical role in the world, and can help inform well-intentioned criticism of government and military policy in the modern public sphere.”

Many believe that the UK's military efforts need to be better covered in class but it is not as simple as just providing extra time for the subject.

Our history teacher pointed out that a way to engage younger generations with the UK’s military history, both past and present, is to:

“Tell them the human losses. If you see numbers on a paper, it’s not necessarily something you can bond with.”