Williamson’s Latin in schools wheeze…just another feles mortuus?

Screenshot. What have Monty Python ever done for us? Lots!

I wake up to yet another ‘dead cat’ announcement from the hapless Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson: “Let them learn Latin” he declares in a £4m Latin Excellence pilot scheme to teach the language in 40 schools. It is not unreasonable for all those concerned in the difficult task of creating and maintaining an education system fit for the 21st century post-Brexit to ask “Why?”

The Education Secretary claims that he wants to ensure all pupils study a broad and balanced curriculum and asserts that “there should be no difference in what pupils learn in state schools and public schools”. Currently Latin is taught in less than 3 per cent of state schools and nearly 50 per cent of private ones.

Of course, the study of Latin and the culture of the Ancient World can be educationally valuable. The classicist Professor Mary Beard, whom I admire greatly, is naturally enthusiastic about Williamson’s plan, claiming that learning Latin is more than just the language, as “studying the ancient world helps us to look at ourselves, and our own problems, afresh and with clearer eyes”, and that it is “mind-expanding and fun”. But surely, as the World Economic Forum says, we should be teaching the curriculum of the future, not the past.

I also worry that it will add to the existing pressure upon Modern Foreign Languages (MFL). Since 2014, foreign language lessons have been compulsory for children from the age of 7, with all the potential benefits that it brings. There is an existing model for Mandarin, The Mandarin Excellence Programme, already in place in 75 schools, including at Colyton Grammar School in Devon. However, as Ellie Baker argues, MFL has been marginalized for years in secondary schools, with the requirement for only 1 hour a week in KS3 resulting in record-low numbers of students opting to take MFL at GCSE. How will Williamson’s initiative address these fundamental problems? Latin instead of Spanish or Mandarin?

As Ellie says, students need language skills to appeal to employers in today’s market as we rebuild from the pandemic, especially given our divorce from the EU. MFL is being downgraded at a time when £250 million+ is being squandered on a yacht to build trade globally, rather than investing in the linguists of the future that are needed to broker these deals. It is ok, we will just talk even louder in English, or if that doesn’t work, impress them with Latin!

Will the introduction of Latin into a curriculum already significantly compromised by the focus on SATS and teaching to the test really help this? Something will have to be dropped in KS3 to make room, and given the catastrophic cuts to the funding for arts subjects at University level (ironically, including archaeology!), I can predict that it will make Music, Art, Drama and Performing Arts even more vulnerable at GCSE and A-level. All of which are subjects that not only in Mary’s words, “help us look at ourselves, our own problems afresh and with clearer eyes” but give us the understandings of how to solve these problems, creatively and imaginatively, which is essential for our future well-being.

As for the bizarre claim that introducing Latin fits in with the leveling-up agenda for state schools making it less elitist, the subject itself being taught is not the issue, it is the unequal resourcing of the state schools, along with the advantages gained from a public-school education in terms of access to the ‘who you know’ ladder of opportunities in our increasingly unequal society, that lie at the root of the problem. And as Andy Jolley pointed out so powerfully, the DfE sneaked out a £250million cut from the Pupil Premium budget for school budgets that will hit our poorest communities the hardest. £4million for Latin is a drop in the ocean in return.   

I have been arguing for years that the priority in all our educational settings, from Early Years to post 16, has to be to prepare our children and young people for the radically different and uncertain future that faces them through Education for Sustainability, which, as my colleagues at Plymouth University argue, will enable “every human being to acquire the knowledge, skills , attitudes and values necessary to shape a sustainable future”.

Scotland appears to be ahead of the game with its Learning for Sustainability embedded in its Curriculum for Excellence. It is clear that significant training and reskilling is desperately needed to achieve Johnson’s post Covid-19 recovery plan, and this has to be through transformative education, which develops critical thinkers who can find creative solutions for the global challenges we are up against.

I really cannot see how introducing Latin in a few selected schools is going to lead to a more socially just, sustainable and equitable society and help prepare our young people to live a fulfilling life in the world that faces them. Put the money into teaching children about looking after the environment, what it means to be a responsible global citizen in an unequal world, and maybe then we will start making up for all the mistakes we have made.