Doctors use it, lawyers use it, even educated gardeners use it. But what use is Latin? It's a dead language with an ailing audience, a subject which has slipped from attracting more than 41,000 teenagers at O-level 25 years ago to having fewer than 13,000 GCSE candidates last year. If there were such a thing as educational euthanasia, a case could be made for putting it out of its misery.
But if it were, Bob Lister would be pleading for clemency. As a passionate advocate of the language and its culture, Bob, lecturer in education at Cambridge University, is what you might call a Latin lover.
"In the past, Latin was a gateway into classical studies," he says. "But that is a very narrow route and that is what made it an elitist subject". He believes the equation should be reversed by introducing classical studies courses in translation to secondary schools. Then, if students have become sufficiently interested, they can go on to learn Latin.
"More than 80 per cent of state schools don't offer discrete lessons in classics and I feel there's a basic entitlement being missed here. It's a much broader subject than some people think."
Bob Lister tutors trainee classics teachers at Cambridge, which is one of only three institutions still offering a PGCE in the subject. Between them they train 42 teachers, down from 78 in 1982 when there were 10 universities training classics teachers. Fourteen students out of this year's intake of 18 at Cambridge have already secured work, but almost all of them will go into independent and grammar schools, the subject's traditional stronghold.
The decline and fall has been most marked in state schools. Bob Lister's record of jobs advertised for teachers of classical subjects in comprehensives since 1982 shows the number of posts has dropped from an annual average of 18 to around 10 since the introduction of the national curriculum. Six posts have been advertised so far this year.
"Unless we do something the job prospects for classics teachers in the state sector is almost zero," he says.
Glennis Foote knows this only too well. She studied classics at Oxford and, armed with a PGCE from Bristol, set off in search of employment. She didn't want to teach in the independent sector, but this being the late 1970s, she didn't have to look far. She taught at a comprehensive in Ely and then at another in Norwich until 1987, when she left to have a child. She remembers her years in teaching fondly and now wants to return, but jobs are thin on the ground.
"The enthusiasm of 16 and 17-year-olds for the subject was quite overwhelming. People think that Latin is only good for helping you to understand the meaning of words, but there is so much more to it than that. Now the only place where most children are going to meet anything classical is in key stage 2."
She says she learned Latin "in an extremely boring way - chanting it until we knew it". But the introduction in the l970s of the Cambridge Latin Course, focusing on Caecilius, a citizen of Pompeii, and his family changed all that. "Not every child can learn Latin," says Mrs Foote, "but there are excellent non-linguistic classics courses too. I feel that we are losing something and if we don't grab it, it will be gone for good."
Bob Lister says the national curriculum has been a mixed blessing because, while it includes at key stage 2 the Greek and Roman invasions, and the Roman Empire at key stage 3, it has also sidelined classical subjects by forcing on schools all the compulsory elements of the curriculum.
Nor has the private sector been immune; the national curriculum has boosted modern foreign languages and information technology, while the financial constraints of the recession have squeezed classics too. Prep schools now expect classics staff to be able to teach other more mainstream subjects such as English or history, and the number of full-time classics jobs advertised by prep schools has plummeted from 30 to eight in eight years.
"Things have been extremely difficult since the introduction of the national curriculum. But at A-level and in the universities there has been a tremendous mushrooming interest in classical civilisation."
So what relevance do the classics have in the 1990s? Bob Lister doesn't altogether agree with the "academic rigour" argument, the notion that studying Latin produces logical minds. "That's questionable, and there is no academic research to support that argument. It's a parents' argument, not a pupils' argument. Unless it can be shown to lead on to good jobs then it's not going to carry a lot of weight."
Instead, he argues, the classics embrace art and architecture, literature and legend, history and geography, mathematics and philosophy. Like the posters of "classics" which decorate his office (Alfa Romeo cars, Coca Cola bottles, and Rolex watches), its appeal is both timeless and classless and can be a particularly good option for less able pupils.
It also boasts superb source materials preserved in texts and archaeological remains at the many Roman sites around the country. Perhaps it's greatest attraction to children, says Bob Lister, is the enduring allure of a good yarn like Jason and the Argonauts.
"They'll bite your hand off for a good myth! There's a natural continuum from a child's basic interest in storytelling through to serious academic study, and from reading literature in translation to reading it in the original. You may say that everybody knows what an Oedipus complex is, but that's not the same as sitting down and reading the the story. It's a magical piece of theatre, a detective story."
The heavy emphasis in modern language teaching on communication rather than on the underlying structure of language does add to the argument for Latin, he says, "but the advent of the European Union has strengthened the hand of modern languages immensely. The last time Europe was unified," he adds with a smile, "was under the Roman Empire."
It was also the last time Latin was truly popular. Now, however, there are signs of a revival of interest in some schools. Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, did Latin at O-level and then at Oxford. In an article in The TES last December he wrote that it would not be wise to "toss aside" the study of Greek and Roman civilisations and their languages which had been "at the core" of education for the past 1,000 years.
He hopes that the post-Dearing flexibility in the timetable will provide opportunities for subjects like classics and believes that the pressure to equip children with vocational training often ignores the need for a broader education.
"I don't see why there should be a clash between the development of vocational options and options to study classics. Heads might wish to reconsider the inclusion of classics as part of the options that they make available."
The cross-curricular applications of classics make it a good vehicle for primary children, as Jenny Dunn, a teacher at St Paul's Primary, Cambridge, discovered. She lead a term-long project with a class of 10 and 11-year-olds in which everything they studied had a Greek theme, ranging from storytelling, government, fashion, poetry, art, mathematics, and ending with a play. "It was a gift of a project - we could have carried on for a second term. The children were gripped by the stories, they made their own books and a frieze of the Parthenon. It opened up the world of Greek thinking and made us realise how civilised they were and how accessible their ideas are."
Nower Hill High School in Pinner is one of several comprehensives in the London borough of Harrow to offer the subject - and to get together for trips and museum visits. The Latin department was re-established about five years ago and around a third of all Year 9 pupils now opt for Latin, with German or French.
"We make it quite plain that it supports the weaker pupils because it helps with their English," explains head of classics Julie Wilkinson, who uses a flexible, independent learning approach with her mixed-ability classes. "It is not the traditional grammar and rote learning that it was."
Peter Jones, of the department of classics at Newcastle University, remembers those days with affection but mourns the lack of opportunity for today's schoolchildren to study his favourite subject. He runs Friends of the Classics, a high-brow social club (with newsreader Peter Snow, Lord Hailsham, Dame Iris Murdoch and Colin Dexter among its patrons) which doubles as a fundraising organisation and lobbying group to support the subject in schools. "Thirty or forty years ago the City and other institutions were oozing with classicists. The infuriating thing is that in the bad old days classics was restricted to an elite in grammar schools and public schools. Nowadays classics is mainly in translation which makes it accessible to absolutely everyone. But the national curriculum makes it more and more difficult for there to be that freedom of choice."
Barbara Bell, executive secretary of the Joint Association of Classics Teachers, and a Latin and English teacher at Bristol Grammar School, agrees. "Latin is not the narrow option people think it is. We have to fight very hard for our corner. Many people just don't get the chance because it is not available in their school or even in their area. Nobody's trying to say that all pupils should do Latin, but it ought to be there for those who want it."
A one-day conference, "Introducing Classics in the Secondary School", will be held in Cambridge on May 5. Phone 01223 332888 for details. Barbara Bell of JACT can be contacted on 01179 736006.