Hopes of Classics teachers around the country were smashed two weeks ago when the Joint Advisory Committee for Qualifications Approval (JACQA) announced its decision to reject proposals made by the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) for a new, eagerly anticipated Latin exam which sought to reduce the excessive quantities of grammar and rote learning currently involved in the GCSE. The upshot is that Latin GCSE will remain the sole responsibility of one provider, OCR, as it has been since AQA’s decision to abandon the subject for financial reasons in 2006. JACQA makes recommendations to the Secretary of State on the eligibility of qualifications for public funding, and although WJEC’s new Latin exam was approved by Ofqual, the body which accredits and regulates examinations in England, their proposals will simply not be viable without the all-important funding that a specialist subject such as Latin requires.
“The OCR exam suits a very particular candidate at a very particular school, but few could claim with any degree of honesty that it meets the needs of all learners”
The decision has caused an uproar in the classics community, and rightly so. The OCR exam suits a very particular candidate at a very particular school, but few could claim with any degree of honesty that it meets the needs of all learners. One problem is that it requires knowledge of excessive quantities of grammar, to the point that there is almost no new grammatical content at AS and A2. Why not spread the grammar points evenly across GCSE, AS and A2? In modern languages such as French the subjunctive is not learned until AS, so why is it in the Latin GCSE? Why couldn’t the notoriously difficult ablative absolute and indirect statement await the attention of the most committed and able Latinists at AS and A2 level? Selective schools with ample on-timetable Latin provision may be able to enthuse students about those constructions, but comprehensive schools offering Latin in their lunch hour must wave goodbye each year to hundreds of able students this way. Studies by the University of Durham have conclusively proven that Latin is the hardest GCSE: that is because we insist on making it the hardest.
“The Latin literature examination tell us everything about how good a child’s memory is, and nothing about what they have actually got out of the literature they have read”
The literature aspect of the OCR exam is also highly flawed. Children are effectively forced to learn 200 lines of English translation by rote. Those who don’t are simply at a disadvant
in reality, everyone does. I did. My peers did. The children at the school where I’m teaching do. What sort of way is this to foster a love of literature? What sort of way is this to test an aptitude for it? Children not only have to translate the literature (a futile exercise when their language skills are already tested, arguably to a point of excess, in the language papers which account for 50% of their total mark) but are required to recall literature that isn’t even on the page. In English literature this is not a requirement until A2 level. Such a test tells us everything about how good a child’s memory is, and nothing about what they have actually got out of the Latin literature they have read. WJEC proposed to turn this round entirely by offering the full text and vocabulary on the exam, shifting the focus of the test to the actual analysis of literature, a much more demanding skill; one which is sought after and highly prized by leading universities, and one which is infinitely more illuminating with respect to students’ abilities.
The distinct lack of choice in the examination of Latin at GCSE level and beyond is hugely unrepresentative of the many different approaches to teaching the subject in different schools across the country, and simply does not cater for the many different learning needs of its students. Somewhat ironically, the reason given by JACQA for declining to recommend funding for the new specification was that “insufficient evidence was given that learner needs cannot be met by the existing provision”. The president of the JACT council, Thomas Harrison, commented that he found this reasoning “perverse”. If, like me, you are inclined to agree, then e-mail your thoughts urgently to JACQA@qcda.gov.uk with a copy to Latin@wjec.co.uk. You can also join the Facebook group ‘JACQA is ablatively absolutely scandalous’.