Modern Foreign LanguagesClassics - Classic prejudice

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
Ancient languages aren't the preserve of the private sector

Recent discussions regarding the status of classics and its teaching in the state sector have provoked an interesting response - particularly with the opening of the West London Free School this month, which aims to provide a classical education in a comprehensive context.

I have been surprised at the backlash and two startling assumptions: that there is a fundamental difference between pupils in the private and state sectors and that young people in comprehensive schools would not enjoy classics or find the subject relevant to their lives.

The first assumption is not true. There are many comprehensives in which Latin, classical Greek, ancient history and classical civilisation are taught by passionate and committed teachers. Equally, there are many pupils completing these subjects of their own volition. This is not a private versus state debate.

As for the second assumption, the literature, politics, history and culture of the Greeks and Romans are endlessly fascinating. By engaging with these subjects, pupils in our schools gain a greater sense of the origins of the society in which they live. Equally, the subject equips them to understand and engage with the world and become more empathetic individuals.

But there is still resistance to classics, particularly the languages. This is a shame as there is an intrinsic joy in studying Latin - a joy I am confident will be shared by the pupils in my new school.

An understanding of Latin or Greek also provides a grounding in the English language and the workings of languages in general. By learning Latin, young people are able to develop confidence, an appreciation of grammar and syntax and a breadth of vocabulary which is assured and nuanced. Classics is also well regarded in a range of careers as diverse as law, medicine, journalism and computer programming. If its study is restricted, a privileged few get an unfair advantage.

As the West London Free School gets into its first term, a high number of classicists have stepped forward to offer their support - a heartening testament to the belief among classicists that all young people should be able to access these subjects. The cry going up should not be "not in my school" but rather "yes please, where do we sign?"

Rebecca Cann was head of classics at Bradfield College, a co-educational boarding school for 13 to 18-year-olds. She is now head of classics at the West London Free School.


In the forums

Teacher's debate: Does it make sense to do a classics masters - will there be any jobs teaching the classics? There is also advice on the best way to refresh your Latin skills.

See for the forum and resource links from this issue.


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