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Schools: Latin

Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 25 November 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to encourage the teaching of Latin in schools.

My Lords, Latin is an important subject. It is valuable in supporting pupils’ learning of modern languages and can provide a useful basis for students’ study across a range of disciplines. It is for schools to decide whether it should be included in their curriculum. The number of non-selective state schools offering Latin has more than doubled since the launch in 2000 of the Cambridge Latin resource, for which the Government provided £5 million of funding.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. I am pleased that she shares my view on the importance of Latin as a way of understanding virtually all Romance languages, particularly English. That being so, is she not disappointed that 85 per cent of state schools still offer no Latin at all? Is she not concerned that each year 35 new Latin teachers are trained but more than 60 leave the profession? Is it not time that Latin was reclassified as an official curriculum language and given the same encouragement as other languages?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. He is correct that the number of Latin teachers in training is around that number. Indeed, it has been approximately 35 to 40 for the past 10 years and it is obviously worrying if a number of teachers retire or move out of the field. However, the Languages Diploma Development Partnership is considering the place of Latin within the languages diploma. Beginning in January, there will be a consultation about that, in which my noble friend may be interested in being involved.

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that the new careers services advise students that Latin has a wide application to future careers, not just in the classics and the modern languages based on Latin but also in the sciences, in particular biology? A biologist cannot manage without a good knowledge of Latin. Will she ensure that, even if an individual school cannot offer Latin to a student, Latin can at least be part of a local authority-wide curriculum offer and thus be made available to that young person?

My Lords, I am not sure that I can ensure it in the way that the noble Baroness suggests but I will certainly think about her comments and take them back to the department. We recently introduced a new form of qualification for modern languages called the language ladder, which I am advised is used for a range of languages from Welsh and Gaelic through to other modern languages and which emphasises the value of teaching, listening, speaking and writing. So we are thinking carefully how languages are promoted in our schools.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that not only is there advantage in teaching Latin in primary schools but that Latin has a huge advantage over modern languages in that it demands not fluency—no one is asked to speak Latin or write stories in it—but accuracy? Accuracy in Latin depends on introducing children to the grammatical and syntactical structure of language, which carries over into all Romance languages, at any rate. Therefore, will she assure the House that the Government will not only mildly support Latin in primary schools but actually press for the language committees of which she has spoken to put Latin high in the list of languages?

My Lords, I am very interested in the noble Baroness’s comments. I heard only just now from my noble friend Lady Thornton about a successful school in Hackney that is teaching Latin and Greek and where the children are receiving a high-quality service. However, the Government’s current priority is to develop the teaching of modern languages in primary schools. We have made a commitment that all children in 2010 will have an entitlement to learn modern languages at key stage 2 and that that will be compulsory in the primary curriculum by 2011. Currently 84 per cent of primary schools are teaching languages at key stage 2, but I hear what the noble Baroness is saying and I will share it with my colleagues in the department.

My Lords, following the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about the importance of Latin in science—indeed, it is important and helpful in learning modern languages as well—I wonder whether we as a House should give the lead. I believe that we in this place can have 10 lessons in modern languages. Can Latin be put on the curriculum for Members of your Lordships’ House?

My Lords, I am very interested in the noble Baroness’s suggestion and would support any additional opportunities for learning in your Lordships’ House or elsewhere. I myself have recently taken advantage of Welsh lessons and I am sure that other noble Lords have other dreams that they wish to fulfil.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I am an indifferent Latin scholar but a slightly better gardener? The small Latin that I have—no Greek, but small Latin—helps me a great deal in my horticultural endeavours. Does she agree, going back to the question that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, put, that the practice of medicine, for example, along with a number of other activities that we wish to encourage, is made considerably more difficult for those who have no Latin?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. There are many professions where a range of language skills, not least the classics, is very helpful indeed.

My Lords, should the noble Baroness’s robust reply in her original Answer, which I applaud, lead one to believe that she would be against the occasional movement to remove Latin words from the English language on the basis that they complicate English? If that were successful, words such as “exit”, “et cetera”, “Anno Domini” and “am/pm” would go. Would that not be a great mistake?