Gove distorts history to “prove” teenagers are ignorant of history

Janet Downs's picture
“Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real,” wrote Education Secretary Michael Gove.

But when asked*, the Department for Education (DfE) was unable to say what these surveys were. The DfE could find only one: a survey done by UKTV Gold. But it didn’t have any further information.

So, not “survey after survey” – just one. And that was done by a TV company. The poll isn’t on UKTV Gold’s website any more but after a bit of digging I found it here. The survey was “specially commissioned” in 2008 by UKTV Gold but it doesn’t say who did it. The poll was designed to test “the nation on its historical knowledge by asking 3,000 people a series of questions relating to famous factual and fictional characters.”

According to UKTV Gold, then, it tested “the nation”. That suggests a wider age range than just teenagers. But what did these 3,000 people say? Results included:

21% thought that Churchill was fictional, 47% thought Richard the Lionheart didn’t really exist and 23% believed Florence Nightingale was mythical.

58% thought Sherlock Holmes was real and 33% thought Biggles was an actual pilot.

It appears that the survey listed some characters and asked respondents to say which ones were real or fictional. The list was arbitrary and included some inaccuracies. For example, the survey listed Lady Godiva as fictional and said 12% believed she was real. But the 12% were right – Lady Godiva endowed monasteries at Stow and Coventry. And the 47% who thought "fictional" Eleanor Rigby was real were no doubt thinking of Paul McCartney’s anecdote that he found the name on a gravestone.

So, one rather dodgy survey of 3,000 people, not all teenagers, was used by Michael Gove to “prove” that school leavers had inadequate historical knowledge.

Perhaps the survey should be updated and include a question about whether Orwell’s Squealer is fictional or not. Some people might answer that this master of propaganda is a real character who inhabits the DfE.

*Freedom of Information request can be viewed on

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