Caecilius Est In Horto: Teaching Latin in Schools

Caecilius is in the garden.

It remains the only thing that has truly stuck with me from the one year of Latin I had to take many years ago when I was in my first year of Secondary School. The escapades of Caecilius in the Roman town of Pompeii in the Cambridge Latin Course are an obscurely universal experience of anyone who had the misfortune to be forced to study Latin in school.

Very soon more will have the privilege.

Gavin Williamson recently announced a plan to roll out the teaching of Latin in more English state schools to a roar of frustration and criticism. It is the foundation of a plan to make classical subjects more accessible in an attempt to stop them from being seen as elitist.

The Latin Excellence Programme will see £4 million being put into the education system to “give all the opportunity to study Latin”.

Naturally there have been many critics, with many citing this as evidence that the government is incredibly out of touch with what schools actually need. A view that, especially in light of the struggles facing the education system post-Covid, is well founded.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love classics. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study Classical Civilisations at A-level where I studied the great Roman epic by Virgil, the ‘Aeneid’, and the raunchy and slyly subversive poetry of Ovid. Like many others I have also enjoyed Stephen Fry’s excellent retellings of Greek mythology and books like Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’ in recent years.

Classics offers the unique opportunity to study history, literature and archaeology all in one place and the ability to handle these skills simultaneously has helped me greatly. I loved it so much that I chose it as an elective subject when I started my history degree.

But if university has taught me anything it is how truly elitist the subject is.

What subjects should be prioritised for funding in the UK? (Credit-Unsplash)

For every one lecture on women there are twenty about men. Less than 50% of all university staff and around 38% of professors in the field are women. And don’t even think about expecting any ethnic minority representation; only around 1.5% of all university staff in classics departments are from ethnic minorities.

As such BAME students make up anywhere between 0-20% of undergraduate Classics students at various universities which the Council of University Classical Departments says is due to the “predominance of the study of dead white European men”, the perception of the subject as elitist, and the lack of role models.

"Classical subjects should be more accessible but it does not negate the fact that schools have higher priorities."

Last year 200 Classics staff, Students and alumni at the University of Cambridge signed an open letter in recognition of systemic racism within the field.

There are problems that do need to be addressed, but this isn't going to change without an effort to encourage the take up of the subject in the first place.

We need young people from every background getting more involved in the subject and developing neglected areas of research. I hope that this programme helps us to start to see this change.

However, I absolutely sympathise with the view that this is a completely out of touch move by the education secretary. Classical subjects should be more accessible but it does not negate the fact that schools have higher priorities. Modern foreign languages need plenty of support in the UK and learning a dead language definitely should not take precedence. From free school meals to higher pay for teachers, I can’t help but feel that this 4 million could have been spent on things that… actually matter?

I’m also unconvinced that throwing money at the problem will solve it. Money isn’t going to change appearances. Access will be an important element but perception is also going to be essential to holding interest. As much as we need bottom-up change we also need representation in visible positions.

Eloise joined The Demographica Network as the Campaigns Manager to ensure young people are at the forefront of the change they want to see. She has worked in Holocaust education since she was 16, which led to her passion for human rights and her role as Content Coordinator at Yet Again UK. Eloise also is studying her undergraduate of History at the University of Glasgow. Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica Limited as a company.

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