Why should the very idea of Latin provoke hysteria in so many otherwise rational people? In May, Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, had the temerity to suggest that primary teachers might like to consider using some of the time freed-up by Sir Ron Dearing's leaner curriculum to introduce their pupils to the language. Judging by the reaction, he might as well have recommended that they start planning lessons on chimney-sweeping or child prostitution.
Dr Tate's suggestion was "myopic", "elitist" and "desperately out of touch with reality", said some of the correspondents to The TES. Many of the writers objected, with some justification, that there were a host of other subjects, particularly modern foreign languages, with a greater claim on spare primary time than Latin, but underlying this utilitarian reasoning one could sense a deeper antipathy - the feeling that Latin is somehow tainted through its association with private education and the ruling class.
Dr Tate himself is philosophical about all this. "I knew that introducing the idea of cultural literacy would be fairly controversial; there are plenty of utilitarian justifications for Latin, but they have been well rehearsed in the past and I chose not to emphasise them.
"Classics are inevitably associated with independent schools and the education of an elite, so there is an instinctive hostility in some quarters." But, he argues, there is nothing inherently exclusive about Latin, "and anyway I was only proposing it as one of a wide range of things primary schools could consider".
Latin has been in decline in the state sector since it ceased to be a requirement for university entrance. Only 12,000 pupils took Latin GCSE last year, compared with more than 53,000 in 1964, and the pattern is similar at A-level. So isn't there something Quixotic about the idea of introducing it in primary schools? The pupils of Our Lady of Victories, a Catholic primary in Kensington, London, think not. They have been learning Latin with their teacher, Jean Cross, for five years - initially through a lunchtime club, now as part of the curriculum.
Listening to an eight-year-old girl in Jean Cross's class explain patiently that the word for "hour" is virtually identical in English, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian and German (hour, hora, heure, hora, ora, Uhr), or to James Boden, also eight, telling of his fascination with Julius Caesar and Ancient Rome, it is impossible not to wonder why, when thousands of children are studying Roman Britain in history at key stage 2, this school is one of the very few state primaries in the country that are actually teaching the language.
The children at Our Lady of Victories come from varied social backgrounds, they are not brighter than average and the cultural and ethnic mix is exceptionally wide. The only factor that could be said to predispose them to learn Latin is their Catholicism, but they could not be described as either privileged or precocious.
"Petrus ad hortum Domini McGregor festinavit. Lactucam et carotam edit. Dominus McGregor furiosus erat. Petrus territus erat." These children see nothing strange about reading Peter Rabbit in Latin and, prompted by amusing illustrations (done by Mrs Cross), even the seven-year-olds had no difficulty with simple translations such as the above.
"I disliked Latin at school," says Mrs Cross, who was trained as a modern linguist, "it was very dry and I hated reading about endless battles. I was 18 before I realised that France had been under the Roman Empire when I saw an amphitheatre there." Now, she is determined that Latin should be enjoyable and seizes on anything at hand likely to make it so for young children: fairy tales, classical myths and plays, a plethora of engagingly eccentric stories written herself - often featuring vast crocodiles with culinary designs on tiny elephants ("Ecce crocodilum ... O me miserum! Crocodilus magnus et elephantus parvus").
The aim, she says, is to expose the children to the language and, most importantly, to its underlying structure and relationship to English and other modern European languages.
Jean Cross insists that she has never discussed with her pupils whether or not Latin is worth learning. "I don't feel the need to justify it - they've never had a negative attitude", but the children seemed to be armed nevertheless with a battery of arguments in favour of Latin, some familiar, others more surprising: "I'm half Spanish and it helps with Spanish and English", "If you want to be a doctor, you've got to know Latin names for diseases and parts of the body", "You need it to learn about plants", "You need lots of languages to get a job and Latin makes them easier", "It shows you what words really mean".
All the children said that given the opportunity they would like to have a go at Greek too, and most wanted to go on learning Latin at secondary school. It seemed heartless to remind them that this will probably not be possible. They were also unanimous that all children should have the chance to try Latin ("they could always stop if they didn't like it"), but 10-year-old Yasmin obviously appreciated the obstacles: "Not many teachers learn Latin, they probably don't think it's relevant".
Asked why Latin had declined, all the children unhesitatingly laid the blame at Henry VIII's door: "He destroyed the Church and he destroyed Latin . .. He thought he was strong, but he was only fat". This is a Catholic school after all.
Many of Jean Cross's pupils are of Spanish or Portuguese parentage and English is their second language. "These children often have less difficulty with Latin than the others; Latin is an opportunity to praise a child who is behind in other areas," she says.
Last term was Jean Cross's last at Our Lady of Victories, and she does not know whether her work in Latin will continue. However, her new school, St Albans RC primary in Harlow, Essex, is eagerly awaiting her arrival. "It will be a totally new departure," said the head, Moreen Healy. "The children will be doing Latin from Year 3 and we're also introducing French, so they should complement each other. Jean is particularly keen on developing the linguistic side - looking at the roots of words. The parents are very interested."
The decline of Latin seems to be a top-down effect both in the public and private sectors, since universities no longer require it. It would be interesting if Jean Cross's initiative were to spark a revival of the subject from the bottom up - if pupils, having enjoyed Latin at primary school, were to start demanding it on transfer to secondary.
It is less surprising to find Latin flourishing at Orwell Park preparatory school, housed in an elegant early 19th-century mansion set in romantic 90-acre gardens in Suffolk. It costs Pounds 3,300 a term to send a pupil here, but although Robert Bass teaches Latin to a higher standard and with a more academic slant because of the requirements of Common and Scholarship Entrance to public schools, his approach has much in common with Jean Cross's. Latin, he insists, should be enjoyable, and is important because "it is now the only subject in the curriculum where you learn the rules of grammar - what an infinitive is, and so on."
"At the moment, children in the state system are being deprived of the chance even to taste Latin. Also, there are fewer and fewer classics graduates and fewer places to train." He agrees with Jean Cross that Latin is suitable for children of all abilities - teachers at Orwell Park have found that the less able are often reassured by its logical structure and predictable grammar.
Sitting around the school's outdoor swimming pool on a hot summer day, enclosed by wistaria-draped walls, the boys and girls recalled how they had been asked to devise a rap, in Latin, on the labours of Hercules, how they had translated scripts from Neighbours and Home and Away into Latin, and how much they enjoyed Roman and Greek myths.
With one exception, the pupils said they found Latin easier than French, and echoed Mrs Cross's pupils in their enthusiastic arguments in favour of teaching a dead language in the late 20th century. Some of them were surprised to learn that Latin was not available in the state sector, but they were all vehemently convinced that Latin should not be the preserve of the privileged. "Everybody should have the chance to try it out. Maybe just for a year, then they could drop it if they didn't get on well. It's definitely not just for intelligent people," said 12-year-old Matthew Perowne. The headmaster, Andrew Auster, suggested that financial pressures in the private sector were taking their toll on Latin. "Entrance requirements are being relaxed; very few independent schools could put their hand on their heart and say that their books are full for the next five years. It's pointless to demand Latin if the parents have the money."
Latin, he said, is only as good as the person teaching it. "Bob Bass infects the children with his enthusiasm. But you could make a case for any subject being a waste of time if there is no one to fire the children's imagination. "
* The Joint Association of Classical Teachers is keen to hear from any primary teacher interested in starting Latin or Greek projects. Contact Barbara Bell, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1 Tel 0171 387 0348, or at home: 82 Swiss Drive, Ashton, Bristol . Tel 0117 9531 819.