In a speech to headteachers to be delivered at Cambridge today, Nicholas Tate passionately defends the role of classics as a cultural reference point for all other subjects and laments the steep decline in the numbers studying Latin and Greek over the past 30 years.
More than 53,000 candidates took Latin O-level in 1964, compared with the 12,800 who took the GCSE last year. At A-level the pattern is similar, with 7,500 entries in 1964 compared with 1,700 in 1994. The most dramatic fall, he says, was between 1964 and 1974. The number of classics teachers in maintained secondary schools has also declined sharply, though the picture at university level looks healthier.
The decline is a consequence of "decisions made by countless individuals in schools and universities" rather than any central policy, says Dr Tate, and began long before the national curriculum was conceived.
The focus on relevance - what Dr Tate calls the "democratisation" of education - has not only denied working-class children access to classics, but has also reduced opportunities for those who traditionally did have such access. "The result is that subjects which had been a major influence on the formation of this country's educated elite continuously since Anglo-Saxon times have now been reduced . . . to a minority provision in a minority of schools."
This matters, he says, not because pupils need "a bluffer's guide to middle-class dinner parties", but because the classics are a vital part of our cultural inheritance, giving pupils a sense of identity and a framework for moral and aesthetic comparisons.
The alternative is a "terrifying Tower of Babel pluralism, in which young people are overwhelmed with images of different lifestyles and values and left to feel that like consumers they can pick these up and put them down at will".
He points out that Latin fares better in other European countries - in France, for instance, it is compulsory for all pupils at some stage, as it is in Serbia.
"To feel a sense of identity with other Europeans one needs more than fellow feeling on the benefits or otherwise of the Common Agricultural Policy. "