Classics in schools - antiquated or essential?

Posted on: 22 Sept 2016

As one leading academic calls for a return to Latin in all primary schools and a local government politician responds by saying Latin 'doesn't make futures', Alex Osiatynski head of Bilton Grange Preparatory School says both are equally misguided.

This blog is in response to Schools Week article 'Academic calls for return of the classics in all schools'

So Professor Dennis Hayes says that, as a minimum, Latin and classics should be taught in every primary school, and ancient Greek added at secondary level. In response, local Derbyshire Labour politician Marian Stockdale has responded that she couldn’t see ‘…schools falling over themselves to take up the offer in the working-class areas…Latin doesn’t make futures’.

I’m afraid to say that they are both equally misguided and wrong-headed.

To give some context to my views: I am a musician who, at school, couldn’t do both music (which ended up being my career) and Latin to GCSE level, so a triumvirate of us in the same position banded together and had extra Latin - yes, I enjoyed it, I thrived on it, and I saw the point of it. Point one - even back then, before the plethorisation of PSHEE, Mandarin and engineering extension classes, fitting everything into the pint pot of a school week was very hard to do.

In a brief sojourn teaching in the maintained sector early on in my career, I volunteered to run a Latin club after school, using the resources of the excellent Cambridge Schools Classics Project, which has been flying the flag in areas of classical deprivation for many years. That was a school in an area of working-class, rural deprivation: there were plenty of children with ambition, with a hunger to learn and to be stretched, who wanted it. Point two, don’t even dare, Councillor Stockdale, to make this an issue of class.

Just this morning I was doing a little ‘interview preparation’ with a 12-year-old boy who told me he doesn’t enjoy Latin and ‘doesn’t see the point of it - why learn a language nobody speaks any more’. The same boy is passionate about early history and is currently reading Bernard Cornwell, so it’s not too difficult to join the dots for him. I’ll get him reading Robert Harris’s brilliant Roman novels and then ask him if we as a civilisation have benefited from understanding the language of Cicero.

Nobody can question the historical, cultural and linguistic benefits of learning Latin, added to which it is simply brilliant brain training; verb and noun endings, word order, syntax and context.

Sometimes we learn to learn, not because of a reductionist attitude to socio-economic usefulness, for heaven’s sake.

I still teach a little Latin, to our Year 5 children who are just starting out on their journey. It is wonderful to see those lightbulb moments where confusion turns to realisation, and the excitement and pride that comes from learning and achievement - just like any other subject. However I know that I dare not go beyond teaching at beginner level; although I occasionally cover lessons with a higher age group and can have a pretty good stab at most of what they are doing, that level of proficiency is nowhere near enough to be a confident teacher. Point three, having enough teachers with the experience, and the right teaching qualities (which, sorry to say, not all retired classics teachers possess) is far from straight forward. Even wonderful, idyllic, utopian schools like mine (!) can struggle to recruit top quality classicists: I was relieved as much as I was delighted to make an outstanding appointment for next January.

Last year I taught a number of children whose learning difficulties, which might be dyslexic tendencies or processing difficulties, made Latin a less exhilarating experience for them. Having to ‘corkscrew learn’ vocabulary and verb endings on an ongoing basis can turn it into an uphill battle, and we - yes, we in our ivory tower, a traditional prep feeding the country’s elite public schools - are considering whether alternative pathways would be more suitable for some children.

So point five, much as we would like every single child to gorge themselves on a feast of Latin and Greek, it simply isn’t for everyone. However nor does it need to be just for an elite, whether academic or otherwise.

Latin is a wonderful, enabling and exhilarating subject crammed with cross-curricular opportunities and I would love as many children as are able to study it; however it needs hundreds, thousands of teachers equally as passionate to have any chance of providing that opportunity more widely. It’s not impossible, but it will be hard.

We have a motto inscribed near our entrance which translates as ‘dunametha’, which I am told means ‘we are able’ or, in Obama-speak, ‘yes we can!’. Unfortunately it’s in Greek, which hardly any of us understand.

Alex Osiatynski

About Alex Osiatynski

Alex Osiatynski is head of Bilton Grange, a co-educational day and boarding prep school near Rugby, Warwickshire.