The Odyssey goes on in Higher Still

9th August 1996 at 01:00
The Higher Still consultation includes classical Greek, to be offered at intermediate, Higher and advanced Higher levels. This provision substantially continues the arrangements developed and administered in the years since 1965 by the Scottish Examination Board, and before that (since 1888) by the Scottish, or Scotch, Education Department.

Any new development tends to prompt a certain curiosity about the past, especially when the term "intermediate", which was used for a kind of junior certificate in the early years of the century, is now being revived. According to the records, 1908 was a good year for Higher Greek, and there were 349 candidates. In 1903, Lower Greek seems to have attracted as many as 558 candidates. By the early 1950s, the SED was commenting: "The figures of presentations in Greek show how striking has been the decline in the study of the language since the early days of the certificate." The 1960s saw something of a return to a golden age, with 315 candidates for Higher Greek in 1965 and 348 for O Grade in 1966.

The school situation in recent times has made it perhaps more difficult than at any time in the past 100 years for pupils to gain permission to study Greek. The new SEB short courses, however, have provided one way of dealing successfully with perceived problems of timetabling. Another way forward may be through systems of distance learning, which could be used in Greek-less city or town schools as well as in rural or remote districts.

Reports on the performance of candidates in most subjects have rarely been wholly enthusiastic over the years but examiners have usually commended the candidates for Greek, as in the following example: "The exceptional percentage of passes in Greek reflects the high quality of the pupils who study that subject."

From the 1950s, there is the undertaking "to see that, while ample justice is done to the average pupil of normal ability, the interests of the intellectually abler pupil will be fully safeguarded". In this year's HMI report on Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools 1992-95 there is concern about "insufficient time and attention . . . given to providing support for more able pupils" in secondary schools. Could increased provision in classical Greek offer a solution to this problem?

There used to be a joke that the main entry requirement for classical Greek was to be strong enough to lift and carry the lexicon - the larger Liddell and Scott. The point was that Greek, treated as something of a poor relation among school subjects, often had no fixed abode. Verbs were learnt at the back of other classes. The Odyssey was translated in sewing-rooms. There was mourning for Socrates in cold-lunch corridors.

As can be imagined, pupils had to be remarkably well motivated to study Greek. Circumstances during the learning process probably contributed to character building in this respect; but the pupils had to be quite determined from the start, since they frequently had to overcome all sorts of objections from school timetablers and careers advisers in order to take the subject in the first place: * "Ancient Greek is irrelevant." (To what?) * "Ancient Greek is too difficult." (You mean bright pupils today are less intelligent or less well prepared at earlier stages than pupils in past years?) * "Ancient Greek is boring." (I don't think so.) * "Ancient Greek is non-vocational." (It depends what you mean by vocational.) And so on. For the pupil who really wants to learn Greek, it has always helped to have supportive parents, prepared to be assertive if necessary to secure appropriate provision. "But nowadays don't pupils just do classical studies?" people sometimes ask. "Why do they have to learn the actual language?" Well, no one has to learn Greek but some pupils want to learn it. The modern equivalents of Chapman's Homer certainly have their place (among the social studies, according to the current curricular categorisation); for some pupils, however, study of classical Greek works in the original language will provide a suitable and satisfying intellectual challenge, and a fine linguistic and literary experience.

At this point, someone may enquire: "And what about Latin?" It may be of interest to note that numbers of presentations for Higher Latin in the mid-1990s are similar to the numbers recorded a century ago: more than 400 candidates. There were more than 3,000 candidates in the mid-1960s.

This article, however, is about Greek, perhaps the original added-value subject, offering a "possession for all time". Instead of "Why Greek?", let the question be: "Why not Greek?" Bridget Loney, an examination officer with the Scottish Examination Board, writes in a personal capacity.

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