Anushka Asthana, education correspondent The Observer Sunday May 13, 2007
Once the preserve of private schools, the language of the Romans is even booming in Britain's inner cities
'Res ipsa loquitur,' (the thing speaks for itself) said MP and columnist Boris Johnson when asked to describe his love for Latin. Steeped in classics, he thinks it 'tragic' that the subject has been 'ghettoised in independent schools' for decades. So Johnson will be the first to welcome today's news that Britain's state schools are experiencing an astonishing renaissance in Latin.
The number of state secondary schools offering Latin has soared from 200 three years ago to 459, new research will reveal today. From after-school clubs for gifted pupils to pan-European contests and on-line courses, Latin is in vogue.
Some say the revival is being driven by popular culture. Television, films, radio and books are filled with stories based in a bygone age, according to Peter Jones, of the National Co-ordinating Committee for Classics. 'One thinks of Boris Johnson's book on the Roman empire or a film such as Gladiator that raises issues of conflict and a sense of value.
'A great spin-off from that is a greater interest in the ancient world,' he added. 'Latin is no longer perceived as an elite subject simply studied by pupils at Eton.' He and other classicists fiercely dispute the argument that Latin is not a relevant subject in the 21st century. They point out that concepts of freedom, democracy and citizenship, embedded in modern politics, were first developed by the Greeks and Romans.
Moreover, learning Latin can help pupils with modern languages. 'I have been trying to learn Czech,' said Anne Dicks, head of classics at Malvern St James, an independent girls' school. 'Although the vocabulary is different, the structure is the same as Latin.'
Last week pupils from across Europe turned up in Paris, Berlin and Malvern, Worcestershire, to battle it out in a European Latin competition that Dicks helped organise. On the Saturday of a bank holiday weekend they turned up to tackle a tough translation.
Will Griffiths, the director of Cambridge School Classics Project (CSCP), who carried out today's research, said many people wrongly assume that Latin is only taught well in the independent sector. His study highlighted schools such as George Green secondary, a comprehensive in Tower Hamlets, east London, where pupils stay after school to learn the language. Other schools were using a new online course from CSCP which allows pupils to learn Latin without a specialist teacher.
At another school in Kilburn, northwest London, where 87 per cent of students are from ethnic minorities, Latin is also booming. 'It is wonderful that so many schools are bringing it back,' said Johnson who recently visited the school. 'It is because people are looking for something that is intellectually stimulating, rewarding and delivers lasting value. If you are able to compose sentences in Latin you will never write a dud sentence in English.'
Johnson, who was yesterday crowned president of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers, called on the government to change the rules so Latin could be taken instead of a modern foreign language when children turn 11.
It is not just secondary schools. Latin is being used as a tool to teach younger children basic English grammar. Barbara Bell, a classics teacher at Clifton High School in Bristol came up with Minimus, a series of Latin books for children that is now being used in 2,500 primary schools. Children learn about Flavius and Lepidina, a couple from AD100, through comic strips.
Bob Lister, a lecturer in education at the University of Cambridge will argue in a forthcoming book that Latin is being used by teachers to stretch the brightest pupils. 'I think there has been a sea change in the attitude towards the gifted child,' he said.
But his book, Changing Classics in Schools, will also highlight a crisis in the subject due to a lack of teachers. 'There is a very serious problem with recruiting,' said Lister. Within recent weeks he has heard of two comprehensives that received no applications at all when they advertised for classics teachers. Figures suggest that there are four or five jobs for each trainee - a shortage that could provide an obstacle to Latin's comeback.