Torch shines brightly for all Latin lovers

28th September 2001 at 01:00
In the late 1960s, at Glasgow University's Department of Humanity, as the Latin department was grandly named, Professor Christian Fordyce ruled imperiously over the minions who masochistically opted for one of the most demanding subjects available. The competition for hardest subject was not particularly fearsome, as at the time a degree in sociology was available to all who could spell London School of Economics.

Graduates who survived the rigours of classical learning selected a variety of career pathways. Teaching attracted its fair share and throughout the 1970s Latin and Greek flourished in some unlikely corners, such as Haddington, Lanark and Perth. and in the independent sector, where the tradition remains relatively solid to this day.

My own billet was St Mary's Academy, Bathgate, where classics enjoyed the patronage of headteacher Hugh McCusker, who relished spending part of his annual holidays at a summer school studying ancient Greek. This helped to ensure full classes and high levels of success.

I had the advantage of a degree in French, a useful parachute in the event of a change of climate.

The falling rolls of the 1980s and the prevailing utilitarianism of the epoch saw scones replacing sonnets. As recruits to classical learning diminished, only the zealots maintained the struggle against the tide of curricular fashion.

An illustrious example of this stubborn breed is John Kerr, now assistant headteacher of Lanark Grammar School. His measured Ayrshire cadences disguise a sharp analytical mind, which grasps the essence of issues instantaneously. He has a PhD in ancient history, his specialist subject was charting the evolution of the Roman praetorian guard, but his demeanour and style are vintage Irvine.

The curriculum guidelines of the 1980s did not offer a comfortable niche for classical languages. Mr Kerr and his colleagues argued for Latin as meeting the requirements of the languages mode, while classical studies could do the business as a social subject. This proposition was viewed in most quarters as sophistry worthy of an ancient philosopher.

An unlikely saviour of things classical appeared in the shape of Michael Forsyth, the Education Minister, in 1990. He prised open the curricular straitjacket by giving the nod to Asian languages, Gaelic, Latin and Greek as being worthy of inclusion in the languages domain.

Mr Kerr saw this chink in the armoury of the curricular watchdogs and saved Latin for Lanark. He could do this more effectively following his elevation to assistant head in 1992 and a succession of headteachers have found both his logic and his persuasive personality compelling.

The torch of classical learning in Lanark has been passed to Shona Harrison and principal teacher Gary McDonald and the successful track record established by Mr Kerr remains unparalleled. Annual presentations in Standard grade Latin vary between 30 and 40. At least half of the country's candidates for Advanced Higher classical studies emanate from the Lanark department. Incredibly, five Lanark pupils from a national total of 20 are scaling the Elysian heights of Higher Greek.

Following a stint as South Lanarkshire's Higher Still support officer, with responsibility for the whole gamut of the curriculum, Mr Kerr defends passionately the right of all minority subjects to a place in the sunlight. He emphasises the critical importance of the pupil's learning experience as opposed to the perceived relevance of the content.

Now that he is fully restored to Lanark Grammar, the atmosphere of his classroom continues to evoke those lines of Vergil's Aeneid describing Aeneas's audience at the court of Queen Dido in Carthage.

Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant.

They all fell silent and paid close attention.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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