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A Strong Fish Swims Against The Tide

I was very fortunate to be given the opportunity to study Classics at school. I don’t mean I’m simply grateful for this opportunity, or even that I was lucky to go to one of the few state schools that still have a Classics department. No, the school I did my A-Levels at ran a Classics course for two years, and two years only, the exact same two years that I happened to be meandering through sixth form.

Not only this, but the teacher who initiated this experiment left the school before the course had even begun. Then the teacher who took up the sole responsibility for the A-level also left after just one year of its running. So, to say that I have an awareness of the precarious position of Classics in state schools is probably justified.

Having just about scraped through my Classics A-Level (and for that matter all of my A-Levels) I proceeded to just about scrape through my degree in the subject at the University of Liverpool.

I remember when I was struggling with my Ancient Greek exams, the course leader invited me for a mandatory meeting to discuss the possibility of my changing courses to ‘Classical Civilisations’ and dropping the Greek altogether. ‘Absolutely not’ was my resolve. I’m a Classical purist, even if Ancient Greek is hard as nails.

All through my time at university, I had to explain to people what Classics was, and why I had chosen to study it. These explanations were met with a truly varied array of responses ranging from abject indifference to frustrated bewilderment.

Having to justify my position against lawyers, engineers, accountants, medics, and business students was genuinely fun, and only served to reinvigorate my belief that I was in the right place, doing the right thing. Despite always being able to meet the repeated notion that my degree was pointless, and a waste of time and money, with a genuine laugh and rebuke, it did always remind me that I was different to the average university student.

Curiously, I was the only person at my university to graduate with a degree in Classics that year. Most of my friends on my ‘course’ were Archaeologists, Ancient Historians, and Classical Civilisations students. This meant that, whilst my modules on Ancient history and Archaeology were filled with friends that I could work alongside, my language classes were more lonely.

I have no idea if I was the only state school representative in my Latin classes, I never felt it was relevant, or appropriate to enquire. I did, however, feel behind my peers in my Latin knowledge and experience. I am fairly certain the others had studied Latin all through school, rather than my measly single year of sixth form.

My Greek Classes by second and third year consisted of a Greek national, an incredibly quiet and studious Music and Greek student, and myself. My already knocked confidence in Ancient Greek was, from then, virtually non-existent. Latin was much more cheerful, yet my fellow students were either from the year above, or the one below. I was always made to feel welcome and at home by staff and students alike, but I could not help but feel somewhat isolated through my degree.

After a year of deliberation and working in my old school, I decided to return to Liverpool to undertake a PGCE and become a Classics teacher. This despite the constant warnings from teachers about the soul-crushing regression of Classics in the state sector. Unperturbed, I arrived back in Liverpool to start my training as a Classics teacher, and I was ecstatic.

I soon discovered that the man who had previously instructed the PGCE Classics and Latin course at Liverpool Hope University, Steven Hunt, would not be maintaining his position. I believe the university saw little argument in paying him to teach just one student (a perfectly valid decision in my eyes). I was the only trainee Classics teacher in Liverpool, and indeed the entirety of the North of England, that year. This meant that I had no university mentor, just my school mentor. Furthermore, I also had only a handful of days at University all year, and week by week I spent five days at school. If I hadn’t already felt different from my peers, I sure felt it now.

Everyone I encountered and worked with during my PGCE year was delightful, supportive, and kind to me. Despite this I did frequently feel singled out and often isolated. I felt that I had little support from the university, and simply did not have the convenience of a friendly face who could relate to the teaching of Classics, outside of my placement schools.

The other trouble I found in my PGCE year was a lack of resources to borrow, steal, and ingest to inspire me to teach lessons. The Classics Library offered some, but they weren’t a great fit for me.

I felt my knowledge had so many gaping holes in it. There were so many ancient texts I had simply never read. Worst of all was the Latin. I love Latin, I love languages, but having only studied it for a short few years, I felt so woefully inadequate to teach it in comparison to the truly exceptional teachers I worked alongside.

Having done my Latin GCSE in a year, my knowledge of the Cambridge Latin Course (which I obviously adore) was scant. I hardly knew what was in it, let alone how to teach it. I suffered from feelings of inadequacy, and an underlying sense of imposter syndrome.

Perhaps naively, I did my utmost to hide my insecurities, not wanting my mentor and other teachers to know they had entrusted teaching to an incompetent.

At the end of my PGCE my final assessment was conducted by someone I’d only met once, someone who had never seen me teach, or had ever been involved with my training. I remember I was one of the last to do their review, and all the other trainees at my school had achieved the highest grade from their evidence folders, even the one trainee that had given up all intention of being a teacher half way through the year.

I passed, but it was a middling pass. Should I have passed with the highest level demonstrable? No. Should I have been singled out in my school as the only trainee who was imperfect? Absolutely not. I knew at the time that the ‘grades’ meant nothing, and that a pass is indeed, a pass. But still, it was the last little thing that made me feel, once more, an exception.

One of my training schools I loved dearly and would have taken a job there at the drop of a hat. At the other, I adored the department and the students, but the senior management and much of the feeling of the school made me believe I was not suited, that I’d never last as a teacher there.

I applied for some positions, but nothing came of them. My options were to take a gamble on a private school, or do something else. My heart was wholly not in it. I felt that teaching depended so deeply on chance, on the luck of finding a school where one can actually teach how they want, be trusted to do so, and not have to put up with the many inconveniences and detractions that have become inseparable from the profession.

I obviously do not have the knowledge or experience to make any meaningful comments on the state of Classical education in England. I do, however, think I can lend my own perspective.

There is a systemic problem with Classics in state education. It is chronically undervalued and woefully misunderstood. I don’t think that Classics fits into the modern state school ethos around optimising exam results, and rampant educational austerity. A classical education is an education for the sake of education itself. One doesn’t become a Classics teacher unless one sincerely loves, or at least values, Classics. There are plenty of subjects that bring greater opportunity and stability when it comes to teaching.

I could go on and on about the benefits of teaching Classics in state schools, but I’d be preaching to the converted. However I can offer my thoughts on why these benefits go overlooked by state school education in this country.

In my experience, state schools are obsessed with data. There is an obsession with the recording and collection of data, of constant observation and performance assessment of both students and teachers. Whilst I do believe that the improvement of data collection and analysis in schools has improved the standards of education in many respects, I think it is being overused.

Studying Classics at school is difficult, and it is even more difficult to quantify the benefits of the subject. (Even though the portfolio of skills taught through studying Classics is so enormous, pupils and students emerge, with more to offer the world of work and study.) It’s not as easy as simply justifying it in the form of an exam result. The benefits of studying the subject, as we all believe strongly, are much wider and interspersed in our lives than simply a GCSE or A-Level result. I think for these reasons it is no surprise that Classics is predominantly taught in the private sector in this country. Private schools have greater leniency in justifying their methods, and results. They have a greater opportunity to trust the benefits of teaching Classics.

I know many people who have at some point studied Latin or Classics and have gone on to do totally unrelated things. There is a common feeling that such a diverse and demanding subject is substantially beneficial, and not just academically speaking. I don’t see a great deal of hope for Classics or Latin in state schools under the current government’s educational ideology. The streamlining and austerity we see in our schools is not a habitat conducive to a prosperous teaching of Classics.

I love my subject, with all my heart, I love teaching too. It is sad to see the circumstances of Classics in our country’s state education system.

I would love the opportunity to share my passion for both Classics and teaching to children who were in my position at school, to bring this subject to life and inspire people from all backgrounds.

Unfortunately for this to happen on a scale that would do Classics justice, I believe there needs to be systemic change in our state education system. Anything less would be inappropriate.

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Your story really touched me strongly, I wondered how could you learn classic literature in such a tough environment and still insisted your belief. I respect your perseverance.

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