Can Boris boost Latin?
I went this week to a 'round table' in City Hall chaired by the London mayor (that's Boris Johnson, ex Tory MP and the world's most famous blonde old Etonian, for readers outside the UK). As mayor, Boris doesn't actually have any direct control over the capital's schools, but -- as a keen classicist -- he thought he might be able to encourage and coordinate efforts to make Latin available to more kids in London.
He had invited about twenty of us -- from schools, universities and other Classics "projects" -- to see what was already going on and to see what else could be done.
Now Classicists are, as a species, a rather gloomy crowd, and they have been predicting the extinction of their subject for over a hundred years (during which time it has in fact blossomed). In fact some would argue it has been predicting its own end since about 200 AD. Nostalgia, you see, is in the bones of Classicists. They're always liable to think that it was better and more expertly practised some time in the past; any time but now, in fact
But there are at the moment serious causes for concern. The worst thing, emphasised on Tuesday, is the government's cap on the numbers of places for training Classics teachers (those taking the Post Graduate Certificate of Education, which is the most common path into the teaching profession). There are only 27 PGCE places for Classics in the country each year, yet 70 teachers retire or leave the profession for other reasons. Even if you add in a handful who start teaching through the Graduate Training Programme (which trains you 'on the job') and a few more who go into teaching in independent schools untrained, the implications of this are obvious. There are simply not enough Classics teachers to take the jobs in the subject that are advertised, let alone get it back into schools where it has disappeared.
The next Tory government (lets suppose) may mouth its support for Latin as hard as it likes, but unless it increases the number of places available to train new teachers, the mouthing wont mean veru much.
On the other hand there are some "green shoots".
Around the table on Tuesday were a number of people who have been working very hard to take Latin to kids at schools where it is not currently offered. They included Will Griffiths of the Cambridge Schools Classics Project (which has among other things developed an on-line course, and does classes by video-conferencing, Barbara Bell (who wrote Minimus, an introduction to Latin for primary school kids), Lorna Robinson (whose Iris Project offers Latin and Greek in an increasing range of state schools in London) and Gregory Wilsdon of the Classics Academy (which teaches intensive classes to GCSE and A level in different parts of London).
It is absolutely clear that there is enormous enthusiasm and expertise already in action getting Latin out to kids in London. I came away thinking that there were two priorities. First, a bit of sustainability and joined-up management. At the moment there's plenty of informal, but not much formal connection between any of these initiatives, and they are very dependent on their charismatic leaders. If (God forbid) Lorna Robinson was run over by the proverbial bus, would the Iris project survive her? So how can these project be "embedded" as they say.
Second, what about taking kids through to GCSE and beyond? It is one thing to get primary school children enthusiastic about little Latin mice (that's Minimus) or 11 and 12 year olds keen on the Romans. But you need structures in place to take some of them onto the next stage -- where Latin starts to get harder. Now that's what the Classics Academy is doing, but still on a relatively small scale. And that's where the teacher training comes in. For it is perfectly possible for an enthusiastic teacher to keep one step ahead of a class of seven year olds doing Minimus (in a way that's the beauty of it).You cant teach GCSE and beyond like that. Then you have to be able to give good and informed answeres to tricky questions like "Why is that in the subjunctive?" or "What exactly is a gerund?"
One of the things that has always attracted bright children to Latin is the fact that their teachers could give interesting answers to that kind of question. The stereotype of Classics teachers does indeed paint them as a bit eccentric, not to say, in some cases, quite bonkers. But it also recognises that they are dead clever. And bright students (at any level) respond best, unsuprisingly, to bright teachers.
But all this needs money. That's the problem. And I dont imagine that Boris has a pot of gold -- but you never know.