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Boris Johnson in 10 Downing St

Boris Johnson in 10 Downing St. Photo: Andrew Parsons / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Teaching Latin and Classics in state schools will do little to address the needs of young people, writes Lucy Nichols

In the latest battle in the Conservative culture war, the government has proposed that Latin is taught in all comprehensive schools across the UK in a bid to remove the ‘elitist’ perception of the language.

The proposal most likely comes as a surprise for many classicists, as classics courses around the country at universities have been facing cuts for years. 

Latin and Classics are genuinely wonderful subjects, and both are very important in understanding a variety of literary texts, historical events and of course the origins of languages ranging from Romanian to Arabic. But this move is not backed by the Tories’ genuine concern that young people don’t know enough about Virgil, or a belief that they ought to improve their understanding of the etymology of the romance languages. 

Young people are here just a pawn in the Tory culture war against a fictious enemy, one that rejects the Conservative’s virulent nationalism and the nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past. 

The education secretary Gavin Williamson argued that teaching Latin would be an exercise in putting an end to the divide between students at state schools and at independent schools – a whopping 49% of which teach Latin at Key Stage 3, while the subject is offered at 2.7% of state schools.

The government intends on spending £4 million pounds on this project, which is called the Latin Excellency Programme. It doesn’t take very long to think of other ways this money can be spent to improve equality levels between state and private schools. The teaching of sign-language, for example, would be far better than Latin and would do more to put an end to inequality in British schooling.

The fixation on Latin over any other humanity or language suggests that the Tories think the rest of us ought to be more like them. Next PE will be replaced by Fox Hunting and food tech teachers replaced with butlers and private chefs.

Meanwhile, Modern Foreign Languages have been on the decline for decades and according to a survey carried out by the British Council, language teaching is ‘in crisis’ in primary schools. Britain is the worst in Europe when it comes to the learning and speaking of foreign languages, and just 32% of young people in Britain are able to read and write in another language – this statistic is higher than 90% in Germany, for instance. 

The government should be focusing on improving funding to the – very vital – learning of modern languages, rather than on a language as rarely spoken as Latin. This is not to negate the historical and linguistic importance of Latin, but to underline the importance of other languages.

British exceptionalism is a dangerous phenomenon, and the ruling class’s attitudes to the rest of the world are reflected in the boosting of Latin lessons over languages that are actually spoken, such as German, French or Spanish. 

It is taken as a joke that the average person from the UK will go on holiday and not speak a word of the local language but expect the locals to speak English. The average English, Scottish or Welsh person is labelled an idiot for not being able to speak another language, when in reality this comes as a result of the phasing out of language learning in schools and the fact that British colonialism means that a large number of countries were forced to speak English during the reign of the British Empire.

It is not just European languages that are pushed aside in favour of English. Celtic languages have historically been supressed by the British government. The governments of Scotland, Ireland and Wales are all working hard to push the teaching of these languages in schools, while many minority languages in the countries colonised by the British empire completely disappeared during British rule. 

But it is Latin that the government has its sights set on, and so Latin is to be rolled out in 40 state schools over the next few years. Only time will tell whether this puts an end to the rampant inequality and unfairness that exists in the British education system; alea iacta est. 

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