Why is Boris Johnson championing Latin in schools?

Latin blackboardAs news emerges that London mayor Boris Johnson has set aside funds to encourage the teaching of the Classics in state schools, we consider why he feels this is important and whether he is right.

Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. To readers of a certain vintage, the previous sentence may immediately conjure up memories of school Latin lessons and sitting behind a desk reciting declensions. The popularity of Latin lessons in the UK, however, declined dramatically in the latter part of the twentieth century, but there has been increasing interest recently in bringing Latin back ‘to the masses’.

Boris Johnson, London’s foppish, flamboyant Mayor, has announced he is backing a scheme to bring Latin to some of the capital’s poorest children. Johnson has donated £250,000 to the charity ‘Classics for All’ which will help train 70 primary and secondary teachers to run Latin lessons. ‘Classics for All’ argue that learning Latin helps students to develop good analytical and communication skills, whilst laying the foundations for understanding modern languages.

Johnson, who studied the Classics at Oxford, has long been a passionate advocate of the subject. In 2010 he delivered a Latin lesson to girls at a South London comprehensive, whilst speaking out about the importance of making the subject available for everyone. For Johnson, it is not just the practical and intellectual benefits of learning Latin which are important; he believes it is an equalitarianism issue. Writing in the Daily Telegraph in 2010, he argued that studying Latin offers a “ladder up” to great universities, courses and careers.

By contrast, former Education Secretary Ed Balls argued that studying Latin had limited uses. “Very few parents are pushing for it, very few pupils want to study it,” he announced. Dismissing the benefit of learning Latin, Balls pointed out that “very few businesses are asking for Latin” and that for most students studying dance or art would be more interesting and more beneficial. Johnson believed that Balls’ attitude was outrageous, as it implied that ‘poorer’ children did not deserve to study the Classics.

Interestingly, the proportion of students studying Latin has actually been increasing. In 2008 the Cambridge Classics Project reported that over 500 secondary schools had started teaching Latin since the turn of the century. Thus, whilst the value of Latin may remain a political hot potato for some time to come, it looks like amo, amas, amat may be a familiar noise in our classroom once more.

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I am currently working for a Pupil Referral Unit in the south, having previously taught in comprehensives in Oxford and London. My particular interests are History and (English) Literature, but as a mum of two small boys I am also increasingly interested in debates surrounding primary education in general and parenting in particular.

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