Latin should be available to all

Pupils and parents were not the only ones on tenterhooks this summer as the day for GCSE results approached. Some of us in the Oxford Classics faculty were expectant too, for this was the first year when our own Outreach Scheme GCSE Latin group would take the exam. GCSE takers have usually had 250+ hours’ teaching for each subject; our group had much less, only two hours each Saturday morning for two-and-a-half years. But still they did very well indeed – nineteen passes at A*–D level, including three A*s and three As. The scheme started in winter of 2007–8. It is one thing to go to a school and give a taster of something classical; the difficulty has always been to give some follow-up to that first contact.

Best way, we thought, was to run a pilot class and see how it went. The response was overwhelming: we ran two pilot classes side-by-side, and even so we could not take everyone who wanted. Still, we thought, there were bound to be drop-outs. Some would surely not like it; some would simply find they didn’t have time; some would be rather different people at sixteen from what they had been at fourteen. But in fact enthusiasm lasted till the end, and we lost only four along the way.

Who was going to teach them? First thought was to do it ourselves; second was that we might be hot stuff at teaching Latin but not at teaching children, and that so concentrated a course needed professionals. We were lucky in the local teachers who agreed to do it, Sponsorship from OUP provided the Oxford Latin Course for one group, and from CUP the Cambridge Latin Course for another. Thus on a cold morning in February 2008, we were away.

How do the students feel about it now? They don’t think of Latin as the ‘dead language’ which many call it, and have been happy to consider be part of a minority of state school pupils studying Latin- that sort of course seems too often to be reserved for public school pupils. As one student explained, ‘everyone in the class wanted to learn. It didn’t feel like the normal school lesson.’

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Teachers as well as pupils have found it rewarding. ‘Latin isn’t easy,’ says one teacher, ‘and people who have been effortlessly good at everything else find they have to try. That challenge can alarm – or it can inspire. I think that’s why they got up on Saturday mornings for two years. They were inspired, they discovered a world they hadn’t known was there through the ideas and stories of the ancient Roman writers. It was an inspiring class to teach!’

What now? There are two new generations starting classes, one of them in Oxford and one in Chipping Norton, again with full support from the Faculty; St Edward’s School, Oxford is also supporting. As for our first students, we hope that some will have the chance to study classical subjects in the sixth form and perhaps at university. Even those who do not may well find in thirty years’ time that they are the ones who can explain what a Latin inscription means. If so, they will look back proudly on those Saturday mornings long ago.