Keep Latin for pupils who want to learn it

18th March 2011 at 00:00

Thomas Packer, head of the West London Free School, says "I prefer to say it's a grammar school for all" (11 March). But a grammar school is not defined by the preferences of its headteacher.

The defining characteristic of grammar schools is that they admit children from about the top 20 to 25 per cent of the ability group, as measured by tests at the age of 11. So he might do better to stick to Toby Young's description of his free school as a comprehensive with a grammar school ethos.

However, I hope that an essential part of that ethos will not be to require all children to learn Latin from the age of 11. As John Milton argued in 1644: "We do amiss to spend seven or eight years merely in scraping together so much miserable Latin ... as might be learnt otherwise easily and delightfully in one year."

Latin is an important language but it makes better sense to teach it intensively to well-motivated volunteers aged 14 or even 16 than to teach it to 11-year-old conscripts, some of whom will have an insecure hold on English. As for Mr Packer's belief that "some simple Latin poetry is worth listening to, reading and writing" - my response to that is O si sic omnes ... In my day, we found trying to write Latin verse both difficult and pointless.

Sir Peter Newsam, Former chief schools adjudicator, Thornton-le-Dale, North Yorkshire.

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