The Department for Education this week announced its intention to try and reverse the “elite” reputation of studying Latin with it’s new Latin excellence programme. The policy, which sees 40 schools in disadvantaged areas teaching Latin to 11-16 year olds, seems blind to current trends in language learning in UK schools. The programme ignores existing problems with language learning in schools, and without solving these problems, the programme will fall well short of excellence.
Statistics show that disadvantaged pupils are far less likely to study languages than their peers, and there is little to suggest that the option of learning Latin will change this trend. If Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) aren’t chosen because they are perceived as difficult GCSEs, Latin, viewed as the “maths of humanities” will be viewed as no different. As a result of this policy, either the uptake of Latin GCSE will be negligible, in which case the £4m set aside for the project achieves very little; or students who may have otherwise picked MFL will pick Latin instead, accelerating the decline in MFL in the UK.
The latter outcome is somewhat less likely. Teaching Latin is not inherently a bad thing – indeed, many studies show that it has a positive impact on learning – however it is difficult to imagine the uptake of Latin being high in schools already struggling with numbers for languages they can speak abroad. In an ideal world, we would have improved MFL teaching and the opportunity to learn Latin; but otherwise, the Latin excellence programme will just create more problems for struggling state schools. It would be wonderful to be in a situation where learning Latin was an enriching experience for students, but the reality is likely to be that in many schools, Latin lessons will be approached without enthusiasm or intent to learn.
Set against the background of the current government’s hostility towards the arts, the prioritisation of Latin is interesting. From a department that urged the Office for Students to “reprioritise funding towards the provision of high-cost, high-value subjects that support the NHS… high-cost STEM subjects.” In Universities, we must question why Latin, a language no longer spoken, is the exception. Whether it is the product of over-romanticizing public school education, or a desire to make headline-grabbing policies, prioritising Latin over other humanities is unjustified, and doesn’t do anything to address existing problems in disadvantaged schools across the UK.
There are aspects of the programme that have the potential to help current teaching in state schools, for example experts working with schools who are currently teaching Latin to create resources for schools in disadvantaged areas. This idea could easily be rolled out to more than 40 schools, in more subjects than just Latin. Despite potential concerns about patronising schools which are struggling, it would at least show commitment to solving current problems rather than creating new ones. Of course, this cannot make up for disparities in class-sizes or funding, however there is no reason why, if this idea improves Latin provision, it cannot do the same for Spanish, or indeed Geography.
The bottom line is that this headline-grabbing policy that applies to 40 schools is unlikely to make a difference to the inequality that pervades our education system. The policy chooses to ignore the wide-spread problem with current MFL teaching, but rolling out Latin lessons won’t be successful unless accompanied by improvements in French, German, and Spanish. Without this, the only effect of the policy will be to create more problems for schools that are likely to already be struggling.