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Latin for All

10-02-2014 13:12


Michael Gove’s speech on Monday certainly caused a stir. When you go into a school, he wants it to be hard to tell whether it is an independent or a state school. One of his points was the announcement of a new collaborative initiative, led by me, ‘to develop top-quality professional development for non-specialist teachers of Classics, as the subject booms in the state sector’.

It is good to be involved. I was a state-school boy myself, learning my Latin and Greek at Cardiff High School in the sixties. That was, and is, a very good school, though one could not claim even then that state schools were hard to discriminate from independents: the playing fields did not roll majestically into the distance, the science labs had a certain period charm, and my first class at primary school numbered 47. But I am immensely grateful for what state education did for me, and of course I want others to have some of the opportunities I had myself.

It may be news to some that Classics is ‘booming’ in the state sector, but it is true. In 2000 there were about 550 secondary schools offering Latin; now the latest number we have is 1128, and there are now more state schools than independents that offer Latin. Initiatives like the Iris project, headed by Lorna Robinson and sending student volunteers into schools to give taster Latin lessons, are a roaring success; so, here in Oxford, is Lorna’s East Oxford Community Classics Centre, catering for interested people of all ages and attracting a lot of teenagers.

Let’s hope we can get away from party politics. Naturally we are grateful to Michael Gove, especially for the generous support of this scheme, and to Boris Johnson, whose London Schools Excellence Fund is funding Capital Classics and doing a lot to promote the subject in London. That is tremendous, and greatly appreciated. But the surge in interest began under the last government, and owes a lot to its injection of £5 million into the Key Stage 3 Latin initiative in 2000; and if we’re indulging in the exercise of praise and blame so dear to Demosthenes and Cicero, the worst damage to Classics was done in 1988. After the introduction of the National Curriculum, state-school Latin GCSE entries halved.

It’s not hard to see why students and schools are voting with their feet for Classics, particularly Latin (though a word needs to be put in too for Classical Civilisation, equally important in many schools). It is not, on the whole, for the reasons that attracted people in my generation, the delight of getting the word-endings correctly to match up; it is more the fascination with the culture. We have been lucky in our communicators – Mary Beard, Bettany Hughes, Michael Wood, Charlotte Higgins, and more – and it is they, rather than Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer, that so often stimulate the imagination. That is not to play down the importance of language, and the learning of Latin is part, usually the central part, of the package that schools offer and students want to take. There is plenty of evidence too of how valuable the language-learning can be: trials, for instance, where a sample group studying Latin advanced their English reading-age by 36 months over a twelve-month period. (Those studying German managed an 18-month advance.) But for students now the language and the culture go together, and that is the way the best textbooks present their material, both at the secondary and the primary level: Barbara Bell’s Minimus has had extraordinary impact in the latter, selling over 100,000 copies.

Yet this surge causes problems too. Students require teachers, and not enough specialist Classicist teachers are being trained. Cuts here date back over several governments. Over 60 Classics teachers leave each year, usually through retirement; no more than 35 are being trained. There is now no classical teacher-training at all in Scotland, and only two universities offer it in England. Time and again, it has been teachers of History, Modern Languages, English, or anything else that have got Latin off the ground in their schools. Their efforts have been marvellous, and they deserve all the support they can get.

That is where we can help, and the ‘we’ here is a very broad ‘we’, as this is very much a collaborative project. Great things are already being done all over the country, in London (the Capital Classics project), Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, and elsewhere, as well as – of course – Oxford. The Cambridge Schools Classics Project has played an extremely important role already, providing for instance indispensable online support; its Director Will Griffiths is playing an important role in this project too. The Open University has also done a lot; Classics for All is already working hard to co-ordinate and to give grants to state schools; the newly founded Classics in Communities is doing a tremendous job as well.

What we can do is provide a forum for sharing experience, with weekend or week-long summer residential courses in which those who have successfully introduced Latin can pass on their warnings and their tips. It is already clear, too, that long-serving teachers, both independent and state-school, will be eager to join in. University academics will offer updates on the latest developments, and we will develop online resources as well, with talking-head contributions from leading experts.

It is an exciting prospect, and one where it’s not any contrast between independent and state sectors that matters, it’s the co-operation. I already know of several cases where independents and state schools share classes, or where teachers from one or other sector offer informal after-school lessons to anyone interested. This will be a further way in which we can work together to share our expertise and our enthusiasm. The beneficiaries should be those state school pupils who already feel something of that enthusiasm themselves, and want to know more; just as I did myself, some fifty years ago.

Some websites:

Christopher Pelling is Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University.

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