Compared with the hundreds of thousands of students who sit more mainstream subjects at GCSE and A level, numbers taking classical subjects are tiny. And they cover several subjects including classical civilisation, classical Greek and Latin. In 2014, just 16,444 people took GCSEs in classical subjects, and even fewer – 6,615 – took an A level. The numbers have crept up very gradually, but are still very much minority.
The Classics are not widely available as options in many schools, and have become associated with being ‘posh’ – only available to an educational elite. They are certainly more widely taught in independent schools (in 2011, for example, 66% of GCSEs were sat by students from independent schools compared with 44% right across the huge state sector). And there is a bias towards what might be seen as the more traditional south of England (60% of classical studies GCSEs were taken in the south in 2014).
This apparent elitism stems from a time when Latin was commonly used by the professions – medicine and law – and the educational establishment, which were then the province only of the rich. Latin was even, perhaps, deliberately used to exclude the unwashed and uneducated poor – and women, who were not allowed access to higher education or the professions.
But education is no longer the exclusive arena of the privileged or the male. Many commentators argue that learning Latin or Greek will enhance the educational attainment of pupils, particularly when it comes to understanding other modern languages such as Spanish or Italian or German which are directly descended from Latin. The fact that Latin can only be taught on the page, as it were, also means the focus is on grammatical rules, giving a firm grounding in understanding how language works, which can only help in learning the rules for other languages – and our own.
English is rooted firmly in Latin and by learning Latin nouns and verbs we can work out the meaning of quite complex English words. Many English words also have Greek antecedents. It is said that 60% of our language stems from Latin and Greek. So although these languages are no longer spoken, they are far from ‘dead’ but live on in their current descendants.
Now that ordinary folk might go on to study science or medicine or technology or law, why not allow them the chance to understand the roots of the words they will be using every day? Why not allow any of us to understand where our language comes from: it’s fascinating!
Meanwhile, access to classical literature or, through taking a classical civilisation qualification, the wider culture of Ancient Greece or Rome, opens up an understanding of the way our own society – laws, government, culture – was shaped. Classical Civilisation GCSE could make a wonderful complement to studying more modern history, for example.
There are various projects and charities which want to reintroduce Latin into primary and secondary schools. So does the current Government. Unfortunately, the unpopularity of some of the changes brought in by former Education Secretary Michael Gove have probably tarred the wider adoption of Latin and Greek with a traditionalist, public school brush. But in fact, by setting the Ebacc measure of performance at GCSE to include either a modern or a classical language, Mr Gove may have opened the door to more schools to offer this option.