Chris McGovern: Should ‘Jack The Ripper’ be taught in school history lessons?

Montage: Graeme Bandeira
Montage: Graeme Bandeira
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FEW readers will be aware that the new national curriculum for history in schools makes the teaching of all the landmark events and personalities of Britain’s proud past “non-statutory” – they do not have to be taught.

In contrast, there is no choice over the teaching of certain topics of non-British history. Islamic history, the West African history, and the history of the Maya appear on a compulsory list from which one sphere must be chosen.

So, which topics from British history are teachers deciding to teach? The Campaign for Real Education (CRE) has researched a single century, the 19th, to discover out the history topics that most popular with teachers.

It should be understood that what really matters in school history lessons these days is something described as “skills”. As part of a bogus “skills” teaching process, pupils are taught to construct the past for themselves through the use of “evidence”.

The consequence of this approach, promoted by the National Curriculum, is that teachers will choose content that best lends itself to teaching these so-called “skills”.

The CRE based its analysis on teacher use of The Times Educational Supplement (TES) Resources website of model lessons for teachers. The website claims that it “connects the largest network of teachers in the world”. For parents and interested observers, the site is a mine of information about what is going in classrooms across the country.

Although “skills”-based history teaching places pupils in the role of “detectives”, it may still come as a surprise to discover that Jack the Ripper is one of the most popular 19th century history topics being taught to children as young as 11.

The TES site lists 143 model lessons on the mass murderer, compared to only 23 for Lord Palmerston, 27 for Cecil Rhodes, 35 for Nelson, 37 for Pitt the Younger, 56 for Lord Shaftesbury, 72 for the Duke of Wellington, 92 for Disraeli, 94 for Gladstone, 96 for William Wilberforce, 100 for Elizabeth Fry and 139 for Mary Seacole.

The content of some of these Jack the Ripper lessons is likely to shock and disturb many parents as well as pupils. Typical of the “evidence” being presented to children as young as 11 is graphic description such as this: “The body was on its back, the head turned to left shoulder.

“The abdomen was exposed. The throat cut across. The intestines were drawn out to a large extent and placed over the right shoulder. A piece of about two feet was quite detached from the body and placed between the body and the left arm, apparently by design.”

Even more shocking is an original police photograph of a mutilated victim. Pupils aged 11 to 14 are asked: “What three questions would you like to know [sic] about this picture?”

On site teacher reviews of such material are enthusiastic:

“That’s really a valuable resource.”

“This really engaged the students…”

“Excellent resource! It worked really well!”

“Students really enjoyed it and engaged with it.”

“Exsellent [sic] resource, my pupils were motivated and intrigued.

Certainly authors of this material seem very pleased with themselves: “Here is a fully structured and resourced scheme of work for Jack the Ripper. I am an outstanding teacher and this is reflected through the scheme…”

Being fully à la mode, the use of digital devices is part of the teaching package: “Progress Review: Write a tweet to your followers to inform them of the horrific murder of Polly Nicholls.”

And even baseline assessment is linked in:

“Jack The Ripper – Baseline Assessment. This is a resource that is ready to use as a baseline assessment for humanities…

“Students reconstruct the way that the Whitechapel murderer killed the victims by storyboarding or creating a film or photostory with their mobile devices. They also have to evaluate the accuracy of a display of one of the victims in the London Dungeon.”

Needless to say, the exam boards are cashing in, too, on the popularity with teachers of the aforesaid Jack. GCSE “Sample assessment materials for first teaching September 2016” from the Edexcel board specifically cover Jack the Ripper.

Since knowledge of the landmark events and personalities of the past define national identity, classroom history really matters; never more so than now.

Ditching much of this knowledge to find sensationalistic content that serves the requirements of bogus exercises in so-called historical skills is a betrayal of the country as much as it is a betrayal of education.

Another model lesson from the TES site should also set alarm bells ringing: “Give three good reasons for joining Isis… how do you think it is when seen from the point of view of a soldier of the faith? Isn’t it rather a challenge, rather a good way of getting to be important? Rather fun being awarded some female slaves? And you are one of the good guys too!”

Slowly, some glimpses of what is going behind the classroom door are beginning to emerge. A few days ago we learnt of a lesson that required 12-year old pupils to write a letter to their family explaining why they are converting to Islam. Of course, children need to study Islam– but not in this grossly insensitive way.

How would an Islamic parent feel if their child was required to write them a letter explaining why they had decide to convert to Judaism, or Hinduism or Christianity?

On a more trivial level the TES website shows that American cartoon series, The Simpsons, has become the focus of a vast number of lessons across a spectrum of subjects.

We hear a lot of self-congratulatory rhetoric from our Government about the improvements it is making to our education system. In the light of some of the evidence that is now beginning to emerge about what happens when the classroom door closes, it certainly has some explaining to do.

* Chris McGovern is chairman of the Campaign for Real Education.