Ask someone on the street if they have ever studied Classics, and after some quizzical looks and erroneous definitions of the subject, you’ll likely hear the words ‘Oh yeah, we did something about the Romans in Year 5 of Primary, I loved it!’.
Like the cameo appearance of the other three emperors in the year 69AD (oh yeah those guys, whatever happened to them?!), Classics appears and then disappears from the subject offerings in UK schools quicker than you can whisper Vespasian.
Both the Greeks and Romans formulate a part of the KS2 (7-11 year olds) primary curriculum for history in England (albeit vaguely), with an overview of other ancient civilisations thrown in for comprehensive good measure. The picture for secondary schools is a more sobering one, with the take-up in state schools at around 5% across all Classical subjects (higher in the Independent sector).
With waning numbers after age 11, regional disparity, economic division, where is battle for the classics to be fought?
As former hub coordinator for Devon and Cornwall for the charity Classics for All, allow me to share with you the challenges these frontline teachers have reported in their droves when it comes to the delivery of the subject. As many do not have any classical background themselves, they are often relying heavily on the resources and expertise of other teachers or institutions to deliver their lessons. Many are deeply enthusiastic about the ancient world, buoyed by their pupil’s impassioned reactions to the heroes of Greek mythology, or defiance of Boudicca. But with limited time, resources and subject knowledge, the cards can often feel stacked against them and confidence can wane.
Secondary school teachers feel this pressure even more keenly, especially once you consider the detailed knowledge required to teach a GCSE or A-Level. As a former classics teacher myself, even I can admit to breaking a sweat prepping the next instalment of Catullus’ poems!
Outside of the history curriculum, teachers are almost unanimously agreed on the positive outcomes that are to be achieved through the inclusion of Latin and Greek into the curriculum. Courses like the wonderful Maximum Classics- which uses etymological origins of English words as a springboard- are flying off the shelves, with around 250 primary schools registered for its free resources.
Battle lines drawn, we begin to see the true obstacles facing teachers in our schools.
Thankfully, there are a number of institutions leading the charge to give much needed CPR to our subject. Classics for All has supported over 144,700 children aged 7-18 and trained around 4,400 teachers in over 1,100 schools since 2010.
The revival is here and strong, finding sturdy roots in the primary sector. With all of this experience, what is next in the strategy? What is the future of Classics in our schools? The answer lies in a two pronged attack, one the method, the other the weapon.
Firstly, we need to bridge the gap between primary and secondary schools. We need to work harder to target teachers of KS3 pupils (11-14 year olds) to keep the fires burning, stoked so lovingly by their colleagues in the primary sector. We need targeted approaches for these teachers, with free ongoing training and support.
Secondly, we need an extensive armoury of resources, prepped and primed for deployment in the modern classroom. We need free resources that are as diverse as the pupils and teachers that enjoy them, created for specialists and non-specialists alike.
We can win this fight because we must. Those fighting on the frontlines are too numerous for me to name individually, but the determination and dedication of these people is infectious and the tide is turning.
As Alexander the Great once said: ‘There is nothing impossible to him who will try’. The challenges are numerous, but the rewards are plentiful. This is the good fight.
Jasmine Elmer is a former Classics teacher, and is now a broadcaster, writer and host of the podcast Legit Classics, out soon!