After the Department for Education (DfE) announcement of a £40 million scheme to encourage higher take-up of Latin by state-educated students, some were quick to dismiss the scheme as a waste of time and money and just another gimmick from this cosmetic Government.
This cynicism was boosted by the simultaneous re-announcement of funding for already-existing modern foreign language programmes, framed as new projects, constituting yet another deployment of the re-announce strategy on which this Government seems so keen.
At first glance, this initiative appears inadequate. Though improving, the UK education system ranks low to average in international comparisons, while 9 million adults in the UK (1 in 6 adults in England) are functionally illiterate, meaning they have a literacy level roughly equivalent to that expected of a 5-7 year old.
To those concerned about the educational outcomes of British youth, this Latin initiative seems to be missing the point. For children that cannot be expected to earn more than a passing grade in tests on their own language, introducing a new, archaic language into the mix can only complicate matters. Far from inspiring students, they argue, a Latin Excellence Programme simply reinforces the idea that educators are naïve and out of touch.
However, such cynicism is misguided on two counts. First, its focus on underachieving students fails to understand the ways in which the education system disappoints so-called ‘gifted and talented’ students. It is difficult to dispute the fact that many underachieving children are left behind by schools. But additional help for the left-behind already exists – for example, the £1 million in funding reserved for addressing educational challenges faced by Gypsy, Traveller and Roma students; a scheme to provide free level 3 qualifications to those who do not currently have them; and £200 million from the DfE for the provision of summer catch-up schools.
This is not to say that any of this is adequate, or that the funding is sufficient; only that the poor educational attainment of some students, and the unfulfilled potential of more gifted students, are two separate issues, both deserving of attention.
At the same time that schools face funding constraints, pressure on schools to force less-able students through SATs and GCSEs (used as marker of education quality at school) means that underperforming students can be prioritised over ‘gifted and talented’ students who pose no issue for the schools’ results tables. While focusing on underachieving pupils is clearly important, there are also issues to be in addressed with regards to allowing students with potential to flourish.
Secondly, the cynical approach underestimates the extent to which Latin (and similar ‘useless’ subjects) can benefit students. Like any language, learning Latin enhances certain skills – memory, problem solving, verbal and spatial abilities – as well as being associated with higher standardised test scores. Since two-thirds of English words are derived from Latin, learning Latin can improve a student’s grasp of their native language, as well as helping them to understand the Latin phrases that are often peppered throughout academia and literature.
The critics of Latin learning are under the impression that unless a topic is of immediate use in the ‘real world’ of employment, it is of no use at all. It was not that long ago that ignorance itself was deemed a vice, and efforts to counteract ignorance in any sphere were considered morally worthy, not just of practical use.
Learning Latin used to be part of combatting ignorance – encouraging a love of learning for learning’s sake, and opening the world of classical literature to young people. Although Latin is of immediate practical use in the ways discussed, it is also important in a more subtle way, in that it can spark (or encourage) a love for learning itself, empowering the student and furthering their intellectual development.
Though hard for some to imagine, there are students for whom Latin would be an engaging pursuit. The patterns, the subtleties of translating from one language to another, the way it facilitates learning about classical civilisation, are attractive and often inspiring, especially for talented students who may be bored by less challenging, more menial classwork. A classroom introduction to Latin could stimulate wider interests, in religion, culture, linguistics, philosophy, shaping the course of a young person’s intellectual life.
The obvious flaw with the Latin Excellence Programme, as well as its price tag, is its limited influence. Its reach extends to just 40 schools, and it is likely to have a positive effect on only a few students within each of classes it reaches. Moreover, it does nothing to address systemic challenges within the state education system, either with regards to underachieving students, or the ‘gifted and talented’ bunch. But it is important to criticise the programme for the right reasons – because this opens the way for right and proper improvement.