Andrew Christie explains why his school was determined to bring the joys of Greek and Latin to local state schools
Latin is a language,
Dead as dead can be,
First it killed the Romans,
Now it’s killing me.
This little rhyme is often used to question the relevance of Latin and Classics in today’s society. Does Latin continue to meet the needs of pupils who are being prepared for jobs that haven’t even been created yet? What role does Classics have in developing twenty-first-century skills to equip our young people for their future careers? Classical subjects are often the first subjects to be cut when school leaders are looking to make savings and despite Classics being a shortage subject, the DfE’s bursaries to train to be Classics teachers have recently been cut by over 50 per cent, while the bursaries for other subjects remain intact.
At Streatham & Clapham High School GDST, in common with many other independent schools, we believe that Latin, Ancient Greek and Classical Civilisation continue to have much to offer not only to our pupils, but also to the pupils in local schools in our community.
As Latin underpins much of English vocabulary, the positive impact of learning Latin on developing literacy skills has been long been recognised. By learning an ancient language, pupils acquire new and more complex vocabulary by understanding the roots of words. English is brought to life when a pupil suddenly realises that there is a connection between words like “dormitory” and the Latin verb “dormire” (to sleep) or that the words “scribe”, “scribble” and “description” all relate to “scribere” (to write).
The structured nature of the language also helps to provide an understanding of the mechanics of language, both of English and other languages. As Latin and Ancient Greek are not linear languages, like English, it is like cracking a code. As pupils have to consider the function of every word in a sentence before coming up with a suitable English translation, they are encouraged to think logically, critically and creatively. The ability to think flexibly and solve problems is a skill that is increasingly valued when so many other roles are being taken by computers and artificial intelligence.
“It is a joy to watch the class perform ‘tres porci parvi’ in Latin.”
The benefits of learning Latin should be open to everyone and so my school has sought to widen access by sending teachers into two local primary schools: Christ Church, Streatham CofE Primary and Streatham Wells Primary. Using the bright and colourful Minimus Latin course, designed specifically for primary pupils, our teachers convey their love of the subject through fun activities, songs, games and even puppetry. It is a joy to watch the class perform ‘tres porci parvi’ (3 little pigs) entirely in Latin.
The pupils feel special and are proud of what they have achieved: one Year 5 boy boasts “I have something to brag about to my siblings”. Nonetheless, the value of learning Latin is not lost on them and the pupils themselves recognise its impact. According to another Year 5 pupil, Latin is “a lot of fun and it helps me with my vocabulary and spelling of words”. We also recently hosted a “Roman Day” for 200 pupils from five local primary schools, complete with a session of drill with two Roman legionary soldiers.
Classics has more to offer than only developing literacy and critical thinking. By studying ancient texts and literature, even in translation, we are given privileged access to a world of ideas that form the foundation of modern philosophical, cultural and political thought. Classical influences and allusions are everywhere from Shakespeare to soap operas on television and so Classics can lead to a richer appreciation of the world we live in. The appreciation of the interconnectedness of ancient and modern societies helps us to reflect on our own lives in a deeper and more meaningful way.
“Classics can lead to a richer appreciation of the world.”
Inspired by the national campaign Advocating Classics Education which wants all pupils in secondary schools to have access to the study of Classical Civilisation, our school has already opened our doors to around 100 pupils from five local secondary schools in the last two years. They can study for a GCSE in the subject and gain access to the rich cultural legacy of the classical world. We want as many pupils as possible to be able to experience this.
When Covid-19 restrictions recently stopped these pupils coming on site, we simply moved online. It is not hard to enthuse young people when the similarities and differences between the cultures are so apparent, especially when they study Roman slavery and the lives of Athenian women in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.
If you tried to suggest to any of these pupils that Latin is a dead language and Classics is irrelevant, you would soon be persuaded otherwise. Classics is healthy and interest is growing; Classics is alive and kicking in our corner of South London.