Today’s Telegraph reports a YouGov poll on how much people know about British history, or more specifically, the three major historical events whose anniversaries have been commemorated this year – VE day, VJ day and the Battle of Trafalgar.

The poll was actually carried out at the tail end of June, and presumably held over to fill a couple of column inches during the August drought. What this does mean it that it would have been carried out at roughly the same time that the BBC was busy showing documentaries about Lord Nelson rather than last week when they were showing documentaries about Hiroshima. It probably isn’t entirely co-incidental that respondents knew about Nelson but not Hiroshima.

YouGov began by asking if people thought it was important for children to be taught about these sort of historial events – the overwhelming majority (93%) thought it was at least fairly important. This sort of question doesn’t tell us much though as there is no trade off; it’s important for children to be taught all sorts of things but, given the limited time and resources in schools, the real question is priorities.

YouGov then asked 10 General Knowledge questions about the three events, with mixed results. Given that the survey was carried out at the time of the Trafalgar commemorations it is relief to know that almost everyone (90%) could name Lord Nelson as the victorious British Admiral. After that knowledge began to falter – while the overwhelming majority of over-50s knew that Trafalgar took place in the Napoleonic Wars, only two-thirds of under 35s did. Asked where the battle of Trafalgar took place, only 35% of people knew, although a further 9% said the coast of Portugal, so were warm. Most people simply said they didn’t know.

On the subject of VE day, YouGov asked people who was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Only 37% of people correctly chose Eisenhower, with 18% and 19% of people respectively saying Montgomery or Churchill. There was a very sharp age difference here – over half of the over 50s named Eisenhower but amongst under 35s the most common answer was Churchill (26%), with only 21% giving the correct answer.

YouGov then asked which of a list of 6 countries were neutral throughout World War II. While nearly everyone knew that France wasn’t neutral, only 38% and 35% correctly picked out Spain and Portugal. Around a fifth of people thought that Denmark and Norway were neutral. Again, over 50s were most likely to correctly pick the two neutral countries.

Finally on the subject of the war in Europe, YouGov asked which Allied army took Berlin – only 41% of people knew it fell to Soviet forces. Again, the over 50s were the most likely to give the correct answer, but they were also most likely to give the wrong answer, saying that British or US forces were present at the fall; under 35s tended to just say they didn’t know.

Next YouGov asked two questions about the War in the Pacific. Asked what events are considered to have led directly to the Japanese surrender, just over three-quarters of respondents correctly named the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Again there was a stark difference between the age groups: 87% of over 50s knew the correct answer, only 62% of under 35s did. There was an even starker contrast when aksed what Britain’s greatest defeat in the Far East was – 62% of over 50s said the fall of Singapore, only 18% of under 35s did.

Finally YouGov asked who became Prime Minister after the 1945 General Election that fell between VE and VJ day. Only 31% correctly named Clement Attlee as the victor, with 29% thinking that Churchill was re-elected. Amongst under 35s, more people said Churchill (26%) than Attlee (22%) although even amongst over 50s 30% thought that Churchill won.

The obvious trend throughout the questions were that older respondents were far more knowledgable about history than younger respondents. In some cases – in the World War Two questions at least, obviously not the Napoleonic ones – it can be explained by personal experience – some older respondents lived through World War Two. There is also the question of the actual content that is taught in school history lessons today – the Napoleonic Wars don’t really figure in the National Curriculum, but the Second World War certainly does – indeed the, probably rather unfair, caricature of recent history teaching is that it’s entirely made up of Tudors and Hitler. Perhaps it can also been explained through different emphasis on teaching history, aside from the one on Hiroshima YouGov’s questions were mainly about names and places, and therefore more suited to people whose knowledge was gained when history teaching concentrated on facts, figures and narrative, rather than broad social themes.

Amongst under 35s the average score out of ten was 3.77 while amongst over 50s the average mark was 6.16. Interestingly though, there was another very sharp contrast that Tony King’s write up in the Telegraph doesn’t mention – the difference between men and women was just as sharp as between the old and young. The average score amongst male respondents was 6.22, the average score amongst female respondents was 3.95. Is history just a “male” subject, or was it because the questions were all “war” questions? Perhaps it’s simply that the male respondents have spent their lives watching war movies.


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