More than 500 comprehensive schools now offer Latin and Sarfraz Manzoor has been to visit one in Walthamstow, East London, a deprived, predominantly working-class area where 80 languages are spoken among its 900 pupils. This is from the Times…
…Under changes introduced in 2010 by the Government, pupils can be awarded the English Baccalaureate for gaining A* to C grades in English, maths, science, a humanities subject and a language. Latin and Ancient Greek now count towards the language requirements, meaning schools are free to offer classical, as well as modern, languages.
Recent figures suggest the change in law has had an impact: more than 500 comprehensive schools now offer Latin at secondary level — a four-fold rise in just a decade. Kelmscott is among them and last May it hired a Latin teacher, Roisin Therese.
Therese’s first task was to give English teacher Dave Hogg a crash course in Latin. The pair met for weekly sessions for six months before they began jointly teaching a class of 14 selected students. The students are mostly 12-year-olds and the hope is that they will, in a few years’ time, be the first in the school to study Latin at GCSE.
“The idea to offer Latin came about because we were looking at how to improve literacy skills for our students,” Hogg explains. “We have some bright kids and we wanted to do something that would challenge them.” Persuading the students Latin was worth studying wasn’t hard. “They feel they are doing something with prestige, and we made it clear about the pathways it can open up.”
I am introduced to seven students who are learning Latin. The group is as multicultural as the school: Huzaifa, Humza, Zara and Hamid are all of Pakistani heritage; Kira and Gemma are white British; Charli is mixed-race white British and Jamaican, and Sefora is from Romania. I begin by asking who they assumed usually studied Latin. “The only people you associate with studying it is posh white people,” says Charli, the daughter of a single mum who works as a bank cashier. Hamid is more blunt. “Posh Christians,” he says.
It is this impression that Hogg and Therese are attempting to challenge.
“It is institutional snobbery to say one group of people should have access to Latin and another group should not,” he says.
“You could argue that it is even more useful for the students at this school because there are studies that suggest learning Latin improves your command of English,” adds Therese.
“Learning Latin provides young people with the roots of many higher-register words in their own language often thought of as difficult,” explains Dr Peter Jones, co-founder of Classics for All, a charity that provides some of the funding for Kelmscott’s Latin project. “It also opens up the vocabulary of many modern European languages.”
Sefora, 12, couldn’t speak English when she arrived in Britain five years ago, but is now fluent. “A lot of Latin words are similar to Romanian words,” she says, “so it’s pretty easy for me to learn them.”
…It is hoped that studying Latin will give the students an edge when it comes to applying to university. “Having gone to a school in Walthamstow and studied Latin is something the university is definitely going to be interested to talk to you about,” says Therese.
The children in Therese and Hogg’s class are the first students at Kelmscott to study Latin. “I’m a bit of a class warrior, to be honest,” says Dan Gillman, the school’s head of history.
“I say to them, ‘You are in competition with the best kids in the country’ — and they love a bit of competition — ‘and we are all working class together, so let’s have a go at the rich, get one back for Walthamstow’.”
It is still too early to know what the consequences of learning Latin will be for these students. What is already evident is how much they relish the opportunity to be pushed. When Kira studies Latin at school she goes home and teaches her dad what she has learnt. She has started a rota and sets him homework based on the assignments she is given by her teachers.
“My dad had always wanted to learn Latin but he never had the chance,” she tells me. “I got my interest in it from him and now we are learning it together.”
Are you involved in a Latin-teaching comprehensive school? If so, please tell us about your experiences. What benefits do you think learning Latin can have for pupils, or do you think they would be better off studying a modern language or something entirely different?