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Education in the apocalypse: disaster and teaching on British television

Marcus Harmes (University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Australia)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 28 April 2020

Issue publication date: 1 December 2020




The purpose of the study is to examine educational history through television's portrayal of educational activity in post-apocalyptic society. The paper examines how and why television drama set after a catastrophe is in dialogue with, but rejects, both contemporary government discourse of “protect and survive”.


The paper treats television programmes as historical artefacts made during periods of heightened anxiety about nuclear and bacteriological war. This paper follows established methods for interpreting educational history by examining the representation of schooling and the discursive construction of teachers and their practices via television. This paper proceeds by tight selection of sections from two texts, examining them as documentary evidence of education in later-20th-century Britain and representations of specific types of schooling that were found in real-world Britain in the period, namely, the minor public school and educational television.


Television drama showing education during and after an apocalyptic event was a reaction to and critique of official assurances that life would continue after a large-scale catastrophe. The representations of schooling reflect the preoccupations of the writers and depict the intersection of schooling, teachers and students with contemporary anxieties in a period where global war and large-scale catastrophe were prominent fears in popular consciousness. Representations of schooling enabled a twofold critique of education. One is critique of the industrial and civil society that had called formal schooling into existence, questioning the value of what in the 1970s and 1980s was being taught in schools. The second is the subversion of the assurances contained in “disaster” education, which promised that disaster would be a temporary setback and underlying social structures and institutions would survive. This paper suggests these sources of educational history present the need to unlearn old knowledge, urge the recourse to self-teaching and question the reliance on a television to teach.


This paper endorses educational, historical and popular cultural research that has found meaning and importance in popular television as a reflection of actual educational practice. Efforts to educate a civilian population about civil defence have received some scholarly attention; however, so far, the way educational practice is portrayed in television that shows the end of the world as we know it has received limited attention. These sources yield valuable insights regarding the interaction between education, disaster and popular consciousness.



Harmes, M. (2020), "Education in the apocalypse: disaster and teaching on British television", History of Education Review, Vol. 49 No. 2, pp. 165-179.



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