How do we teach the First World War in Schools?

‘Whatever else war is, it is always horrific’

– Richard Aldridge in ‘IMPACT 21: How ought war to be remembered in schools?’

Last month, IMPACT (an initiative of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain) organised a seminar led by David Aldridge, lecturer at Oxford Brookes. Held at the Institute of Education, Aldridge and his co-panellists discussed: ‘How Ought War to be Remembered in Schools?’

History teachers aren’t faced with the easiest of tasks; it’s already a challenge to engender a memory of events that students (and often teachers, themselves) didn’t experience first-hand. Teaching the First World War, a war often seen as morally neutral, can be doubly tricky. In history lessons, there are aspects that are black and white: Asquith was Prime Minister in office at the outbreak of war; the Battle of Liege began on the 5th of August, 1914; the war was primarily fought in trenches. But it’s the grey areas that also need addressing whenever we teach, talk, or even think about the past. Aldridge pointed out that, as educators, whenever there’s reasonable disagreeance on an issue, we need to teach that variance.

Aldridge argues that the horrors of war need to be communicated for students: images and narratives of soldiers – including children and young adults – killed or wounded. He advises educational institutions to ‘consider whether the rituals and practices they engage in around remembrance successfully communicate the horror of war’ (Aldridge, 2014: 6).

Aldridge’s fellow panellists also shared their thoughts. Jerome Freeman, Director of the First World War Centenary Battlefields Programme (run by the Institute of Education and Equity), emphasised the importance of going beyond the horror to encourage students to really discover the First World War. While schools often opt to teach the Second World War over the First, the FWW has been largely undertaught. The Battlefields Programme enables two students and one teacher from every state-funded secondary school in England to visit battlefields on the Western Front between 2014 and 2019. Students are encouraged to research their own family connections to the war, but the tours are important historically, not just emotionally. Freeman emphasised the significance of discovering the political and social consequences of war, while also engaging with historiography – was it a just war? What were the consequences? The tours are built around these key questions, while also probing the issue of remembrance. Who, what, why and how do we remember?

In the IOE Archive workshops we deliver in local primary schools, we use archives to tell the stories of ‘ordinary’ individuals during the war. How did the Great War impact men, women, children? These details range from photographs of children setting up gardens to address food shortages on the home front, to letters describing life in the trenches, to applications made to tribunals for exemption from military service. Working primarily with primary schools, we ensure the horrors are not overplayed; rather, children develop a sense of how nearly every aspect of life was impacted by the war in some way.

Pupils tend to a school garden. Image via Imperial War Museum via

Pupils tend to a school garden.  Allotment-style gardens were developed in available areas of land during the Great War – including school playing fields.
Image via Imperial War Museum via

However, that doesn’t mean skirting around the terrors and tragedies of the war, including the realities of Britain’s own role. We worked with a Year 5 class in Camden who were busy learning about conscientious objectors. Through the archives and classroom discussions, students were fully aware of the harsh consequences faced by COs. Moreover, as pupils carefully considered why pacifists objected to serving brought to the fore the daily realities of war: the very fact that, as Aldridge pointed out, ‘war is killing, not just dying’.

A Year 6 student commented that he had recently read Private Peaceful, a Michael Morpurgo novel (spoilers ahead). In the novel, a young soldier, Thomas ‘Tommo’ Peaceful, reflects on his life in the trenches of the First World War. It’s revealed that Tommo is to be executed by firing squad in the morning for cowardice, and serves as an honest examination of soldiers killed on the grounds of cowardice or desertion. The student simply, and thoughtfully, remarked: ‘I couldn’t believe stuff like that happened by our own army… wasn’t there enough killing?’

As with teaching of any sort, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way. But we also have the knowledge that history too often repeats itself.  One of the best things we can do as educators is to ensure students have a multi-faceted understanding of the range of issues and perspectives which surround any historical event, particularly when it comes to conflicts and peace-keeping.  Aldridge suggests it’s imperative that we remember the horrors of war, ‘so that we continue to make every effort to avoid or at least condemn unnecessary conflict in the future’ (Aldridge, 2014: 5).

Relevant Educator Resources:

The Interwar Peace Movement: lesson plan from the IOE Archives
While our archive collections don’t contain a great deal on the graphic horrors of war, the National Union of Women Teachers collection contains papers, leaflets and correspondence relating to the post-war peace movement and their support of/for conscientious objectors.

Learn Peace: An education project by the Peace Pledge Union


‘Life at School: Then & Now’ Workshops

When we initially started education outreach within the archives, we expected to work primarily with Key Stage 2 to 4 pupils. However, we’ve had a fair bit of interest from Key Stage 1 classes, and it has been fantastic seeing younger students interact with history in a new way.

Prior to the holiday break, I delivered several ‘Life at School: Then & Now’, workshops to Year 2s at schools in Fulham and Westminster.  Using a variety of our archive collections, we explore the differences between life at school in the past and present, particularly investigating the differences for boys and girls.  The second main learning goal for this workshop is to know different ways we can learn about the past.  The afternoons went by quickly, but here are a few of the sorts of activities we get up to in ‘Life at School: Then & Now’ workshops…

We first use the archives to look at the traditional differences of school in the past and now, that students are often already familiar with:

  • Victorian schools with students in rows versus tables arranged in groups
  • Blank walls versus colourful artwork, posters, etc.
  • Stern looking teachers in formal clothes versus smiling teachers in more modern fashions
  • All the while, thinking about how our classrooms are now arranged in comparison (the students immediately observed the absence of computer stations and carpet areas in photographs from the early twentieth century)
Hard at work

Hard at work drawing birds-eye views of their classroom in 2013, and classrooms in the past.

Children then explore archive collections including photographs, timetables, and documents depicting gender-specific learning… domestic science classes for girls, and woodwork classes for the boys.


This photograph was featured in a magazine about School Home Economic classes; taken at Mayfield Comprehensive School in London in 1953, ‘the girls learn to use household (items) and equipment’.  Document Reference: BF/1/1/21


Male students in a Craft, Design and Technology class, from the 1970s.  Document Reference: ABB/A/75/10


Finally, we take a look at progressive schools and later decades (like this primary school in East London), as both male and female students were included in domestic science & craft, design, and technology classes.  Document Reference: BF/1/1/9

Following an afternoon break, we use the National Union of Women Teachers collection to look at the differences for male and female teachers in the past.  Two students volunteer act as male and female teachers in 1914, and come up and collect their annual pay (in the form of highly coveted Monopoly money – £82 for women, £139 for men) to illustrate the pay inequality.  Shock from the female students naturally ensued.


Taking care with the archives, the Year 2s were particularly interested in the old handwritten notes jotted on the backs of the photographs.

Investigating photographs

Investigating photographs from the Brenda Francis collection, which depict ‘ironing… making tea… cutting the fish’.

In small groups, taking a look at the NUWT archives with their white gloves on.  One of my favourite bits of the workshop was when one of the boys was taking a look at an old ticket from a demonstration at Royal Albert Hall, paused, and asked '... Are these from the ladies we learned about?!'  The year 2s had also been learning about London landmarks and were quite excited to see 'Royal Albert Hall'.

In small groups, taking a look at the NUWT archives with their white gloves on. The document of choice for most was an old ticket from a demonstration at Royal Albert Hall.  The Year 2s had been learning about London landmarks and were quite excited to see the familiar Royal Albert Hall.  One student paused and asked, ‘… Did the ladies we learned about go there for a meeting?!’

It was great to see how well the NUWT collection can lend itself to other themes and topics, in addition to the campaigning workshops we’ve done thus far.  In the upcoming weeks, we’ll be using the NUWT papers to create workshops focusing on historiography, in addition to an adult learning day around the theme of ‘Education for Peace’ during the war and inter-war period.

For ‘Life at School: Then & Now’,  we drew from a few of our other archive collections, in addition to the NUWT, including:

The papers of Brenda Francis.  Francis was a London County Council / Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) Advisory Teacher in the field of domestic science.  Throughout her career, she collected a a large collection of photographs which captured domestic science from the 1930s to the 1980s, and a range of supporting papers.

I also brought along photographs from the photographic archive of the Ministry of Education’s Architects and Buildings Branch.  The A&B Branch collection contains photographs and slides which depict a range of features of school life from the 1940s to the 1990s.  The collection is amazing in its breadth, illustrating a wide range of subjects which reflect both the Branch’s activities, the consturction of schools, and also records of changes in styles of education, concepts of child-centred learning, planning, furniture, colour in schools, landscape, sociology, social history, post-war changes in secondary education, the secondary modern, vocational/technical education, gender stereotypes, and many more.

A big thank you to the wonderful Year 2 teachers we worked with, Ms Casey; Ms Murphy; Ms Vandepas, their T.A.’s, and each of their enthusiastic, clever students!

‘I know this stuff is old because it’s mostly all grey…’ – Archives & Year 2s

This past week was our first foray into working with Key Stage 1; our ‘Clever Campaigners’ workshop was delivered over two days to a Year 2 class in Camden.

The pupils have been busy learning about the civil rights movement as a part of Black History Month, so we linked the NUWT’s campaign for equal pay to extend their study of campaigning and equal rights.  We explored different campaigns (from civil rights to McDonald’s to Anti-Smoking to Recycling) as the students debated what the goal of each campaign was.

Armed with their white gloves, and with great care, the Year 2s read through the NUWT's 'The Woman Teacher' publications.

Armed with their white gloves, and with great care, the Year 2s read through the NUWT’s ‘The Woman Teacher’ publications.

After they had time to explore the visual, verbal and written campaign strategies of the NUWT, the students then got busy creating their own campaign.  Following a class vote, they decided to create an environmental campaign.  The students designed ephemera encouraging others to take care of their planet by recycling, walking instead of driving in a car, and to stop smoking.  With their carefully designed badges and posters, they then went on an enthused environmental march around the school.

I spy future campaign designers, no doubt.

I spy future campaign designers, no doubt.

The students’ care, attention to detail and genuine curiosity of the archives reinforced the valuable role primary sources can play in early years learning.  Upon investigating a newspaper clipping of Mrs. Bale (former NUWT president) speaking at an equal pay demonstration in Trafalgar Square, a pupil came up to me, document in hand; he pointed to the photo’s caption, and patiently explained:

‘this newspaper article says Mrs. Bale talked yesterday… but I know they mean yesterday a long time ago because on the back it says it came from 1940…

Plus, they are all wearing silly hats!’


Mrs. Bale and some impressive hats.  Another pupil immediately spotted the lion and wisely pointed out that she was in Trafalgar Square, and… ‘with all that space for people, what a good place for a big meeting!’ (document reference: UWT/D/38/1)

Thanks to Ms. Albrecht and her lovely class of Year 2s (otherwise known as the Polar Bears) for having us visit!

If you are interested in archive workshops for your group (from Key Stages 1-4, adult education, informal learning, etc), email for more information / to make a booking.