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The Curricular Elephant in the Room

Recently in How to build a Classics Department from scratch George has shown how the work of one person can truly have an effect on hundreds of pupils within a state school in terms of giving them some kind of Classical education. I’d like to use this as a bit of a springboard to examine the other side of the coin (that none of us really like to talk about); the challenges we can face as teachers in trying to build a Classics department that lasts beyond our own times at our schools.

Despite all our good will and determination, I’m not sure whether we will ever have Classics ‘standing on its own two feet’ in state education while the status quo within the system exists. Pressures exist which, quite bluntly, make introducing Classics a bit of a hassle for everyone involved. Does that mean we can’t introduce it? No. Does it make it difficult to make it a staple of mainstream education? Quite possibly.

I must stress here that Classics has some great outreach and advocacy work going on (big shout out to Working Classicists and Classics for All here). But the holy grail for Classics would be an automatic place in the KS3 & KS4 curriculum in state-maintained schools across the country. This seems a way off though. An already crowded state school curriculum is a given but this could be said in response to advocacy for any ‘new’ subject. But this resistance is amplified by Classics’ multi-disciplinary nature as a subject and the unique challenges that presents.

Arguably, Classics just doesn’t fit well into a modern state school. Aside from the oft-levelled criticisms of elitism that the subject is plagued by, as a multidisciplinary subject Classical Civilisation is difficult to categorise. Is it an English-based subject? Is it a History-based subject? Obviously, to those of us ‘in the know’ it requires both historical enquiry in addition to an English-style appreciation of things like ancient poetry (which itself also can’t really fully be understood without a secure knowledge of its historical context).

This tends to create a problem for schools. With an eye on the next few academic years, you could have a GCSE or A Level option that relies solely upon the expertise and enthusiasm of one teacher. If that teacher was to leave part way through the course for whatever reason, what then? Do we ask an already over-burdened History teacher with little experience of the Ancient World, out of their comfort zone analysing ancient literature, to take over? Or an English teacher who might be great at this but out of their comfort zone when it comes to the History side of the subject? Who takes responsibility for the subject? Someone in house’ will likely be found in the short term, but it doesn’t bode well for Classics’ long-term survival in this setting. A need to upskill teachers that aren’t in charge of a Classics class is therefore paramount, but their willingness to take this on when they are already over-worked is placing a lot of reliance on their good will.

My SLT are fantastic and were supportive of my willingness to offer Classics GCSE at the time but it became obvious that for us it was actually Ancient History GCSE that was the ‘safer’ option for us to introduce as a GCSE option. I can’t fault the school’s reasoning actually; as someone now making my way in school leadership I would make the same decision because it makes the most sense. It’s not multi-disciplinary and can be picked up more easily by a History teacher if I ever left. As I sell it to our students: “It’s History, but way further back in the past!”

It is that bit easier to upskill other teachers in and the History department will take ownership of it more readily (important in an Ofsted and results driven culture). In this way the subject has a legacy beyond my time at the school. It has been a success and something I’m proud of. But it isn’t Classics. These subjects share similarities but to those with experience of both, you’ll be aware that they are different and both have their own staunch advocates.

I guess the thrust of what I am trying to say is that despite the enthusiasm, the hard work and the intelligence of the Classics outreach movement, the state education system isn’t that conducive to its widespread implementation. Risk-taking is difficult even in good schools. Even with a willing SLT there will be questions around the subject’s viability if results are bad, which is not conducive to a non-specialist’s willingness to take on a subject like ours that straddles two disciplines. This is such a shame since I know what a huge appetite there is for Classics (particularly mythology) amongst our state school pupils, yet the ‘system’ unwittingly works in a way that prevents a lot of these students from being able to access these incredible features of the ancient world that all us Classicists know and love.

If Classics is to stand on its own two feet in state education, we need to find a way of making it fit better, because sadly, I’m not sure the system we are trying to squash it into is going to change to be more amenable to our efforts any time soon. If our tactic remains “If we can just give them a taste of Classics, they’ll see how interesting and valuable it is!” while remaining blind to the systematic challenges the subject faces (without trying to address these somehow) then I don’t think we’ll ever realise the scale of participation we dream of.

Last Minute Exile: Andy Roberts

Hometown: Neston, Wirral

High School: King's Chester

Like Seneca, like Aristotle, and like countless others from Classical history, you find yourself subject to an exile order, and must vacate the country tout-suite before some sort of sword-based injury befalls your neck!

You grab three records...

1. Belgium by Bowling for Soup. I have inexplicably seen this band nearly twenty times. I don’t know what it is. I just love them.

2. She got the Best of me by Luke Combs. Because country music. Like... you literally love it or hate it. Like pineapple on pizza (more on this below).

3. This Must be the Place by Talking Heads. I think David Byrne is a genius and it’s just the nicest song.

…two books…

1. I’ve just finished Barack Obama’s book. A classy guy whose desire to improve people’s lives through compromise and ideological pursuit I massively respect. - I’d re-read that so many times.

2. I recently also finished the Wheel of Time epic fantasy series. The last one of these for sure!

…a Tupperware of your favourite food…

I am a huge fan of pineapple on pizza (and people seem to be really really against this)... so slices of Hawaiian pizza definitely.

…and something else at random.

Can I say my wife? I feel like she’d be annoyed if I just left her at short notice...

Exile is going to suck, but at least you won’t have to put up with…

The fella next door who likes doing DIY at stupid times of the day / night.

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