Heads have suggested Gavin Williamson is not "speaking the same language as everyone else in education" after his department pledged to invest millions of pounds in Latin lessons for state school pupils.
Geoff Barton, head of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), told Tes the education secretary could talk "ad infinitum" about the importance of learning Latin – but it was the "worrying decline" in interest in modern languages that should be "top of his agenda".
The Department for Education announced over the weekend that it would be investing £4 million in Latin lessons for secondary pupils across 40 state schools, in an effort to challenge perceptions of the ancient language as "elitist" and "for the privileged few".
The news was welcomed by the classicist Mary Beard, who said she was "absolutely delighted" the government would be investing in the "extraordinarily enriching subject".
But it proved controversial among teachers, with principal Simon Smith branding the policy "utter codswallop" on social media.
I have an o’ level in Latin.— Simon Smith (@smithsmm) July 31, 2021
It’s sum use was shouting “ECCE!” when a teacher was coming down the corridor.
The idea that doing Latin will level up chances of young people from state schools is utter codswallop.
This is another distraction from the real issues by Gav.
Mr Barton said it was "typical" that the DfE was targeting cash at boosting Latin learning when the "overwhelming need" lay with encouraging students to take modern languages at GCSE and A level.
"The education secretary's announcement on levelling up Latin uptake in private and state schools leaves us wondering if he is speaking the same language as everyone else in education," he told Tes.
"Whilst any move that helps encourage young people to take an interest in languages is welcomed, it is typical that the government chooses to target money at increasing uptake in Latin when the overwhelming need is addressing the general decline in interest in modern languages at both GCSE and A level.
"Uptake in languages is poor because students perceive they are graded more harshly than other subjects and that they don't need to study them because English is so widely spoken. All of this is exacerbated by a chronic shortage of language teachers in our schools.
"The education secretary can talk ad infinitum about the importance of Latin but the worrying decline in interest in modern languages in our schools and colleges generally should be top of his agenda."
The DfE said the Latin Excellence Programme will be led by a "centre of excellence" working with up to 40 schools to develop teacher training resources and lesson materials for students aged 11 to 16.
It will support schools over four years, from 2022 to 2026.
The department said the aim of the scheme was to boost GCSE Latin entries and help students with other subjects such as English, French, Spanish and maths.
It will also include activities such as visits to Roman heritage sites to improve understanding of Classics and "life in the ancient world".
Meanwhile, the DfE has announced the next phase of its £16.4 million Mandarin Excellence Programme, and the fourth year of the £4.8 million Modern Foreign Language Pedagogy Pilot, which supports the teaching of French, German and Spanish to GCSE.
The Mandarin programme, which was set up in 2016 and now involves 75 schools, is expected to be extended for a further three years from September.
And the MFL pilot, which was launched at the end of 2018 and currently provides key stage 3 training and teaching resources to 45 schools, will expand to cover key stage 4.
Mr Williamson said: "We know Latin has a reputation as an elitist subject which is only reserved for the privileged few. But the subject can bring so many benefits to young people, so I want to put an end to that divide.
"There should be no difference in what pupils learn at state schools and independent schools, which is why we have a relentless focus on raising school standards and ensuring all pupils study a broad, ambitious curriculum.
"Latin can help pupils with learning modern foreign languages, and bring broader benefits to other subjects, including maths and English."