Opinion: Why education secretary Michael Gove is in the wrong

PUBLISHED: 13:17 10 January 2014 | UPDATED: 13:17 10 January 2014

Education secretary Michael Gove has said the TV comedy Blackadder is teaching pupils 'myths' about the First World War.

Education secretary Michael Gove has said the TV comedy Blackadder is teaching pupils 'myths' about the First World War.


It seems an unnecessary and pathetic row has erupted between a government minister and an archaeological comedian over how we should portray the First World War within the education system.

The battleground between education secretary Michael Gove and Time Team presenter Sir Tony Robinson (of course better known as Baldrick) is the final series of Blackadder, set in the 1914-18 trenches of France.

It is a sensitive issue, undoubtedly, with the centenary of the outbreak of the conflict falling later this year.

However, to start squabbling over the use of Blackadder in schools is unseemly.

Mr Gove suggested that “left-wing academics” were using Blackadder to “feed myths” about the First World War. Sir Tony – who is also a former member of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee – firmly rejected the idea and accused the education secretary of “slagging off teachers”.

While Mr Gove may not have intended to criticise teachers in this way, he is in the wrong here.

If the Blackadder portrayal of the First World War is not permissible, because it depicts Britain’s military leaders as cowards and buffoons, where does that leave the writing of Siegfried Sassoon or the other war poets?

And as Sir Tony adds, those teachers who may use Blackadder as a teaching tool will also be those most likely to take their students to Flanders or read the poems of Wilfred Owen to them.

It may just be that Blackadder unlocks an interest in the First World War for pupils, and if it shows that it can inspire comedy as well as great poetry and literature – whether you agree with its sentiment or not – that surely has to be a positive.

I never felt Blackadder was disrespectful to the millions who were killed or maimed in the First World War and I don’t recall any such reaction when it was first aired in the late 1980s. I do not think for one moment either, that it gives a portrayal of the conflict that can’t easily be challenged or balanced elsewhere. Today, I am thankful I was taught about the First World War at school and how it impacted on the modern world through the Russian Revolution, the rise of Communism, the Second World War, the Cold War and the history of the Middle East.

By the time I completed my studies, I had a broad overview of why the world in which I lived was the way it was. It set much of my life into context and helped me understand why some states reacted in certain ways, whether I agreed with them or not.

That interest had been triggered by an imaginative teacher who had presented history in a relevant and meaningful way with balance and context but allowed me to explore my own ideas as well.

Blackadder will not give pupils the definitive version of the First World War, no more than Hollywood does in its portrayal of conflict in the Second World War, Vietnam, the Gulf or other wars. But if it fires an interest to investigate further, then it will have proven an effective educational tool.

So, on this issue, perhaps Mr Gove should go forth...


  • The " Blackadder " series about the First World war was funny. It was never irreverent and showed the fear and futility regarding the conflict. In particular it showed the disdain that those in charge had for human life. It was a horrendous waste of life and should be shown as that along with the bravery and hardship endured by those involved. WW 2 took place only twenty years later. The politicians never to seem to learn the lessons as it is their failure that lead to such conflicts.

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    norman hall

    Friday, January 10, 2014

  • About all Gove knows about schools is that he used to go to one!

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    Sunday, January 12, 2014

  • When has Grove been right about anything?

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    Eastern canary

    Friday, January 10, 2014

  • Would or should teachers be allowed to show students The Life of Brian as part of a balanced look at christianity?

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    Friday, January 10, 2014

  • Mark, I reckon you're misrepresenting what Gove said. He was making the sensible point that if historical emphasis is awarded disproportionately to programmes like Blackadder, then the academics who do so do their students a disservice. And he's right: people who do this are a] lazy and b] more often than not lefties. The war poets' works, based on personal experiences, stand well apart from Blackadder, which is great comedy but not history. There are, of course, plenty of excellent history books around on WW1, many of them making the excellent point that, despite their faults in 1914, the Western Allies won because in the end they out-thought and out-fought the Germans: civil governments not military dictatorships at home, effective maritime blockade, alliance with the USA, innovative use of technology on the battlefield, promoted military leaders who did learn from their experiences etc etc.

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    Friday, January 10, 2014

  • so according to gove (he may once have read a book or two) suggests that sassoon, owen and many other war poets may have been lefties? That harry patch may have been mistaken? That oh so many historians were in error? I suppose that gove will instruct all the free schools, using untrained and unqualified teachers, to use the same lack of historical evidence that he has and say our leaders were just incredible and talented. Oh how wonderful to be blinkered.

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    Monday, January 13, 2014

  • Robinson, a leading Labour party activist, forgot the golden rule that if you are going to criticise an opponent you should make sure of your facts first. Gove was not slagging off teachers. Far from it. His comments were made about named academics. Sorry Boldrick, your cunning plan on this one was way off the mark.

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    Friday, January 10, 2014

  • It is a shame that Mr Gove has confused the patriotism and valor of those who fought in WW1 from the stupidity of those who led them. The lack of leadership of those in charge of the British Army and their reckless disregard for the numbers of men they were prepared to sacrifice for so little gain is evidenced time and time again during the war. To claim that in some way the war has been misrepresented by the left when so many millions of lives were squandered by inept military and political leaders seems to be ignoring the facts.

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    Bad Form

    Friday, January 17, 2014

  • How should we portray any war in our education system? I'm sure Harry Patch would have a few things to say asbout the futility of war and what should and should not be remembered by our children. Talk of superiority and tub thumping are wholly misplaced, Mr. Gove should have refrained from commenting on a subject he so obviously knows little about.

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    ingo wagenknecht

    Friday, January 10, 2014

  • What nonsense this misrepresenting article is. I have now taken the trouble to read what Gove said and what he asked for is a balanced approach. Blackadder, on its own, is not that and to say it is an attack on teachers is nonsense. Since when has balance been wrong? This article fails in this respect too. Both Robinson and the writer are being disrespectful to all those who fought in the war and especially those who lost their lives.

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    Friday, January 10, 2014

  • To Andy: how are they being disrespectful in what they say?

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    Friday, January 10, 2014

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