In the early Seventies, Latin teaching was revolutionised by the introduction of The Cambridge Latin Course. No more first lessons spent learning the present tense of "amo" and the second or third translating into Latin such delights as "The boy loves the ship", "The girls love the ship" (but never "The boy loves the girl").
Instead the first pages of the Cambridge course introduced a Pompeian family, complete with dog. By the end of the book, the dog is refusing to leave the ruins of the house after the eruption of Vesuvius has destroyed both it and everyone in it, "dominum frustra custodiebat" ("he was guarding his master in vain") - not a dry eye in the class.
Each chapter also contained a short article on the Roman background relevant to the story. Thus the Latin was now placed firmly in its cultural context.
So popular has the course been that it now accounts for around 50 per cent of GCSE Latin entries. Not surprisingly it has never wavered in its aims "to teach the comprehension of the Latin language for reading purposes" and "to develop an understanding of the content, styles and values of Roman civilisation".
Oxford's response to the Cambridge course was the Oxford Latin Course. Though a far cry from the older style grammars, it was no copy of the Cambridge course. The pace was faster and translating English into Latin, that sinewy and taxing skill, much in evidence.
Recently both publishers have produced new editions: Oxford in three volumes in 1996, Cambridge a new first volume last year, with the others soon to follow. Cambridge has tried to meet the ever-pressing problem of time by removing or shortening some of its stories and tightening up on the comprehension questions. But the similarities to the old course largely end there. The books are bigger, make full use of colour, especially colour photos in the now rewritten and highly impressive background sections.
Like the Cambridge, Oxford's revised course is bigger than its predecessor and in colour. Although much of the background material has been rewritten, the most dramatic change is to be found in the language component which has moved much closer to the Cambridge philosophy and now gives primacy to "the acquisition of reading skill". So English into Latin is much reduced, and so too a grammar learning curve previously steep enough for a mountain bike.
One particular advantage of both revisions is their attractive appearance which makes them easily the equal to texts in other subjects. There are, of course, still differences of approach between the courses, but the Latin teacher will now have to dig deeper to find them. He or she may conclude that the Oxford course still places greater emphasis on Latin to sharpen the mind, the Cambridge to broaden it.
But now that the Cambridge approach has become the orthodoxy one can see the possible flaws. Why is there so much background material? How many teachers actually have time for it? Doesn't classical civilisation GCSE very adequately meet that need? And why must learning Latin now lead its pupils so singlemindedly to the Holy Grail of Latin literature? Are we ashamed of the rigours of Latin grammar? Isn't it still good for the mind? Can't we be open about it? And couldn't we teach it much better now we have such lively and imaginative minds at work on Latin courses for us? We would do well to remember Harold Macmillan's comment: "A classical education will do you no good at all, except that you will always be able to tell when someone is talking rot."
Richard Burrows is head of classics at Priory School, Lewes.