Bringing Classics To Secondary Schools

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be invited to a celebration of Greek language and culture in the UK by the lovely Mai MusiƩ and Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson. It was a fantastic day all round with some incredibly fascinating speakers from the Classics teaching community.

One of the aims of the day was to explore how better to help more teachers, particularly in state secondary schools, to start teaching ancient languages and culture. My current school has in the past two years started to deliver Classical Civilisation GCSE and A Level and so far the uptake has been great but we have yet to prove ourselves with any results.

As a state school we are unique in the area for offering such a course and the reaction from staff and parents has at times been extremely encouraging and then also quite surprising. By far the thing that has thrown me the most has been the reaction that this subject is elitist and purely for the private sector. I find this response baffling. I feel sure that one of the things that we as state sector teachers ought to be doing is to democratise learning and to fight tooth and nail to ensure that there are no subjects that are beyond the reach of our students. However, still there is a reluctance and fear of these subjects.

There also seems to be a fear that by coming back to these traditional subjects we are in some way betraying some sort of socialist ideal about what we should teach in our schools. To embrace the benefits of Latin and Greek Language as well as the teaching of classical culture and history is akin to admitting in a staff room to being a friend of the teachers’ pantomime baddie politician Michael Gove. Again I am left dumbfounded as to why this would be the case.

Various research projects in recent years have proven the impact that teaching these subjects can have on the literacy of young people.The research has not taken place in nice middle class areas but in schools in deprived areas with high numbers of students who are on the free schoool meals and who are deemed to have a special educational need. You only need to look at the fantastic Classics in Communities and Iris projects in order to find strong quantitive data to show the potential that these subjects have.

When I first started teaching I found the cynical exhortations of my older colleagues that if you just stood still long enough in this job you would come back into fashion to be signs of giving up. However, the longer I have been in the classroom the better I see where they were coming from. That doesn’t mean to say that revisiting something that used to work very well and making it better and more relevant can’t actually make a difference. That is ultimately what we are here for no matter how seasoned and weathered we have become by the profession we all want that.

Conversely there seem to be the majority who are genuinely excited but the idea that this is something that we can offer. Staff have asked if they can join our lessons. Many of the parents have also taken time to read our set texts and seem more like animated students at parents evenings than their own children. The students who have joined the course have become fierce advocates for classical education and have gone above and beyond what we would have expected of them over the course of the last two years. 

These students are by no means simply a group of the so called gifted and talented. We have students whose predicted grades cover the whole range and they have all made their own discoveries and improvements along the way. It has been one of the highlights of my career thus far to see the passion with which they approach their work.

There are of course practical considerations with regards funding and getting people qualified but these are not insurmountable. Classics For All, The Cambridge Latin Course and the Classical Association all have funding available and learning to teach the subject is not only not as hard as you might think but also hugely rewarding.