Classics in Schools: Time for Reappraisal (again)

Bob Lister

'Why - or more precisely, to what end - do we propose to continue teaching Latin and Greek ? Most of the claims formerly made for classical education were examined by Henry Sidgwick nearly a hundred years ago and found wanting. Yet classical teachers when they feel they are working successfully do not seriously doubt that what they are doing is of value. Enquiry into the nature of this value might seem difficult and superfluous. Difficult certainly, but justifiable for its bearing on administrative decisions and on the choice of methods of teaching, content of syllabus and arguments with which to defend ourselves against our enemies.'
Sharwood Smith (1963)
In the wake of the decision by Oxford and Cambridge to remove Latin as a matriculation requirement classicists were forced to ask fundamental questions about their subject and its educational value: classics teachers might instinctively know that their work - and their subject - was valuable, but could they present a cogent and coherent case to justify its place in the school curriculum? John Sharwood Smith's editorial in the first issue of Didaskalos, published in 1963, laid down the challenge for classicists, and the launch of Didaskalos, following shortly after the publication of the Classical Association's Reappraisal, set the agenda for a long-running debate on the future of classics.

Didaskalos itself provided a major forum for discussion. A feature of the journal was that it brought together the thoughts and opinions not just of classics teachers, from both schools and universities, but also of classicists internationally, and from experts in connected fields. This was typified by the series of articles published in six consecutive issues between 1963 and 1968 under the general title (taken from Henry Sidgwick's 1867 article), 'A Theory of Classical Education,' with contributions from Cambridge academics, an American classics professor, the head of an independent school, two school teachers, and a professor of the Philosophy of Education from the London Institute of Education. Even if the contributors could not agree on the precise shape of a classical education for the future, they did all agree that it was essential to make changes: classics had to encompass more than mastery of the classical languages. Furthermore, as Chris Stray notes (Stray 2003), there were concrete outcomes from this critical examination of the aims of classics: new textbooks, such as Balme and Warman's Aestimanda, changed the way teachers approached the teaching of texts; Moses Finley inspired a reinvention of Ancient History as a school subject and the development of classical civilisation courses; and radical rethinking about the aims and methods of Latin teaching led to the publication of the Cambridge Latin Course.

A similar period of reappraisal is now urgently required. The recent decision by AQA to stop offering public examinations in Latin and Greek from 2006 is symptomatic of a much more significant problem with assessment in classical subjects, particularly at GCSE. There is no prospect of AQA being persuaded to reverse its decision: Latin and Greek are not economically viable, and they will have checked that OCR was intending to continue providing examinations in classical subjects before making their decision. (The examination boards have shared out all minority languages, e.g. Bengali and Russian, to ensure that they are offered by at least one examination board.) But in the case of the classical languages there are particular problems with the reduction to a single provider. The QCA criteria for GCSEs in classical subjects offer examination boards considerable latitude in deciding the balance between the language, literature and cultural aspects in Latin Greek. As a result, AQA and OCR have been able to develop distinctive GCSEs, which, between them, cater for a reasonably broad spectrum of candidates. The loss of choice will almost certainly lead to a loss of candidates at the lower end of the spectrum, particularly in schools where Latin and Greek are taught in restricted circumstances.

The reduction to a single provider will also concentrate too much power in the hands of the chief examiners in determining the content of the examinations. This is already an issue: whereas 15 years ago OCR had not only a GCSE Classics panel but also a sub-committee for overseeing Cambridge School Classics Project examinations (until 2000 both AQA and OCR set GCSE Latin papers designed specifically for users of the Cambridge Latin Course), there is now no classics panel at all. The selection of set texts is therefore dependent on the personal preferences of one or perhaps two individuals whose choices may not reflect the needs of the wide range of teachers and students affected by their decisions. This is highlighted by the OCR choice of set texts for AS and A2 Latin for examination in 2006: Cicero Pro Milone, Livy Book XXX, Virgil Aeneid X and Horace Odes I. When set texts are so central to the AS and A2 examinations, this selection will have made it all the more difficult for teachers in many schools to persuade their Year 11 students to take the Latin in the sixth form. Even the Virgil selection is unsatisfactory: there are at least four other books that most classics teachers would choose ahead of Aeneid X as an A level text.

A bigger question is whether set texts should continue to be part of GCSE examinations at all. Is it reasonable to expect students to answer questions on 300 lines or so of verse and prose authors after studying Latin for only 3 years? Under these circumstances, teachers can only complete the GCSE course by rushing through the texts, often giving a dictated translation and notes, and students can only ensure a good grade by learning the translation by heart - and in many cases the notes too. This is no way to encourage a love of literature, and may discourage even committed students from continuing with Latin after GCSE when they learn that AS and A2 involves more of the same, only with substantially more demanding texts. Yet there are strong grounds for wishing to retain some literature in the original language at GCSE: to remove the literature would be to remove a fundamental justification for studying the classical languages. What would be lost if students were required to read the literature in translation? Might reading the whole of Aeneid II-IV in translation be a more valid educational experience than reading 150 lines of Aeneid II in Latin in the manner described above?

There is almost certain to be a major revision of GCSE and A level in the light of the report into 14-19 education currently being prepared by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools. According to press reports, Tomlinson is likely to recommend that the number of public examinations should be severely cut back in a shift towards internal assessment by teachers and the introduction of a new over-arching diploma. Given the speed with which educational reforms tend to be introduced, classical organisations must be proactive in canvassing the views of their members, so that when the formal consultation process is launched, they can present a common front and put forward a clear and coherent view of the place of classics in the school curriculum. Starting from scratch we need to map out a realistic pathway for study of the ancient world from primary school (or preparatory school) through to university that takes into account the contraints of the modern curriculum. What might a national curriculum for classics look like? Which aspects of the ancient world should all children, irrespective of ability, gender, race or social background, be entitled to encounter during compulsory schooling? In what order and at what age should they cover these aspects? What sort of assessment, internal and external, would be appropriate for such a classical curriculum?

These questions cannot be answered without a reappraisal of the fundamental aims and principles of classics. A good starting point for discussion would be Curriculum Matters 12 (HMI 1988), which set out the case for classics and defined the objectives for teaching classical civilisation and the classical languages in 5-16 education. Even though many classicists might not fully support the HMI 'manifesto', any changes to it would require a high degree of consensus across the classics community. That in turn requires a frank and searching debate among classicists across all phases of education. (It is essential, for instance, that university departments take a leading role in discussions about the possible reform of A levels in classical subjects.) It should also include dialogue with European colleagues, all of whom are facing similar challenges in their own countries. Recent meetings with university lecturers from Denmark and Italy have revealed many common concerns, particularly over the future of classical languages in schools. These will be examined further at a conference in Cambridge[1] next year, the aim of which is to identify common issues facing Latin teachers in schools and universities and share possible solutions. The better our understanding of the problems facing classics, the better the prospects of classics still being part of the school curriculum 40 years from now.

Bob Lister (


HMI (1988), Curriculum Matters 12: Classics from 5 to 16, HMSO

Sharwood Smith, J. (1963), editorial, Didaskalos vol. 1, no. 1

Stray, C (2003), 'Classics in the Curriculum up to the 1960s', in Morwood, J. (ed.), The Teaching of Classics, Cambridge University Press

[1] Meeting the challenge - European perspectives on the teaching and learning of Latin, Cambridge, July 22-24, 2005. For further details visit

CUCD Bulletin 33 (2004)
© Bob Lister 2004

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