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Schools: Classics

Volume 757: debated on Thursday 27 November 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to promote the teaching of classics in schools.

My Lords, we believe that classics can form a key part of a well rounded education or, to put it in words that I am sure my noble friend will understand, fundamentum disciplinae universae. We are providing £0.5 million to fund training for non-specialist teachers of classics in state secondary schools, led by Professor Pelling of Oxford University. From this September, maintained primary schools must teach a modern or ancient language to seven to 11 year-olds. In secondaries, achievement of an A to C grade in an ancient language GCSE counts towards the English baccalaureate.

Floreant literae humaniores. Is my noble friend absolutely confident that enough is being done to increase the number of classics teachers in response to the very welcome surge in interest in state schools? Does he agree that partnership in classics teaching between independent and state schools is already flourishing and that the right way to increase it is by voluntary agreement, supported and encouraged by government, and not by government compulsion, as the party opposite now proposes?

My Lords, ITT places for classics are up 25% and we have increased the bursaryship for classics and modern foreign languages. I fully agree with my noble friend that the classics are a fruitful subject for partnership. I am sure that he will be pleased to hear that we announced a fortnight ago a number of independent/state school partnerships, including one for Latin involving Thomas’s Kensington in collaboration with three state primary schools, with a further three language partnerships. I wholeheartedly agree that such partnerships should grow from voluntary initiatives, such as these ISSP programmes, and not be forced by government.

My Lords, in view of the popularity of television programmes on classical civilisation, would it not be good to encourage state schools to put on more courses in the area of classical studies, relating language to history, philosophy, architecture and other aspects of the classical world? Would this not give a more rounded and attractive possibility for students in state school and perhaps give the classics an equality with modern subjects, ceteris paribus?

Classical civilisation is a very valuable subject in its own right and can stimulate children’s interest in Latin and classical Greek. Indeed, classical civilisation at GCSE has been up 12% in the last five years. Primary schools must teach pupils about the Roman Empire and its impact on Britain and about ancient Greece. They may also, of course, teach about other ancient civilisations, such as those in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the very best things that the Mayor of London has done was to support Classics for All, which has already promoted 100 new classics courses in schools and hopes to double that in 2015?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. We have funded Classics for All substantially for this. My own school uses it and it is an excellent programme.

Is the Minister aware that the teaching of classics is supplemented by private provision, such as the excellent week-long residential courses in Latin conducted, very appropriately, at Gladstone’s Library? Will he consider supplementing or assisting pupils from the state sector who are currently missing out with bursaries to attend such courses?

My noble friend refers to an excellent programme, which I would like to hear more about. I hope that, after the election, there will be a further round of independent/state school partnerships, which have been promoted by this Government. I would welcome an application in that regard.

My Lords, I declare an interest as having spent a disproportionate amount of my childhood studying Latin and Greek. Is it not obvious that learning to decline the pluperfect subjunctive and to tell the difference between a gerund and a gerundive is a good preparation for modern life and that study of the classics may indeed enable citizens to know what the plural is of “referendum”—whether it is “referendums” or “referenda” or neither?

Is the Minister aware that Latin always has some friends and supporters, of which I am one? A little Latin in life gives a bit of intermittent pleasure from time to time. What is more to the point, I welcome what the Government have done in restoring modern foreign languages to the 16 year-old GCSE EBacc. That is a really significant move. I did it many years ago. It was dropped. I welcome its return.

I am grateful for the noble Lord’s comments. It is true that under the previous Government the number of core academic subjects slumped, but they are now reviving. Spanish GCSE particularly is up by 50% and, of course, these subjects qualify for both EBacc and the Progress 8 measure, which is coming in in 2016.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some decades ago there was an authoritative study into some 2,000 words in ordinary parlance in the English language? Of those, about 75% were directly derived from Latin. A similar study in Wales in relation to the Welsh language found the figure to be of the order of 85%. I congratulate the Minister, therefore, on the approach that the Government are taking in looking at Latin not just as something belonging to a classical and distinguished past but as a building block from which so many modern languages are derived.

Only 5% of private schools lend specialist teaching staff to state schools. If a local private school teaches classics, but the state school next door does not, does the Minister agree that private schools should make their classics teacher available? If the private schools will not help, why does the Minister think that they should continue to receive tax breaks?

I entirely agree with the direction of travel in relation to the statements made recently by the Shadow Secretary of State for Education. It would be nice to see the independent and state sectors collaborating more. However, many private schools are very small—we all think about the very large, substantial private schools—and such arrangements would be extremely difficult. We are trying to encourage them as much as possible, particularly in subject-specific teaching, which is why we have just had this round of independent/state school partnerships.

Is the Minister aware that there are several Members of your Lordships’ House who studied in a grammar school in the Gorbals of Glasgow, where the emphasis was very much on classics? Furthermore, it has now been discovered by studying the choruses in Aristophanes that the pronunciation that we were taught in Glasgow was much more akin to what the ancient Greeks spoke than the pronunciation taught in England?