Latin, the language of literacy

Many thanks to Lorna Robinson for passing on this story to me.

Daily Telegraph

It sounds like a scene from Goodbye, Mr Chips. A classroom full of high-pitched young voices reciting “Amo, Amas, Amat”. But this isn’t some pre-war academy for privileged young gentlemen. It’s mixed-sex, multi-ethnic Gayhurst Community School in the middle of 21st-century, inner-city Hackney.

And the zest with which the boys and girls of Year Five are singing out their Latin verbs is in sharp contrast to the leaden tones in which generations of public schoolboys have traditionally chanted their first and second conjugations.

“The children love these lessons,” says resident form teacher Bryan Nelder. “They look forward to them beforehand, they talk about them afterwards and they find them extremely valuable in terms of improving their English grammar.”

And that’s the key to it all. For this lesson is officially timetabled not as Latin, but as Literacy.

Whereas there’s no official room on the curriculum for the mother tongue of Cicero and Catullus, there is a place for tried-and-tested language exercises designed to improve pupils’ grasp of basic word composition and sentence structure. And Latin fits the bill.

In the space of one short sentence, “canem habeo” (I have a dog), visiting classics teacher Sara Waymont demystifies the whole subject-verb-object phenomenon.

She also opens the children’s eyes to the vast number of Latin words masquerading as English, such as station (from sto, meaning I stand) or mansion (from maneo, I stay).

And this is the first Latin lesson these nine- and 10-year-olds have ever had.

“Oh yes, they pick it up amazingly quickly,” says Sara, who’s 21 and went to a (non-Latin-teaching) state school in Essex. “By the end of this year, I expect they’ll be writing whole sentences in Latin.”

It’s a year since Gayhurst Year Fives started studying Latin and word of the experiment’s success has spread fast. This year, 40 inner-London schools have taken up the subject, in boroughs such as Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Islington.

“There are many more schools which would like to do it,” says Dr Lorna Robinson, founder of the Iris Project, the charity behind the whole idea. “But we don’t have the resources.” Or the teachers, since the Iris Project has a pool of just 20 to cover the 40 schools.

All are students at either University College or King’s College, London, and the money they are paid for their Latin teaching comes from what’s called the Widening Participation Fund. This is designed to open up Britain’s halls of learning to a less privileged public.

That apart, the scheme is run on unpaid effort. But, just as Hannibal remained undaunted by The Alps, so the Iris volunteers are not put off by lack of cash.

They also publish a quarterly classical studies magazine and run lunchtime Latin In The Park sessions for adults, which earlier this year were the subject of an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, whereby 32 MPs called for these picnics to be rolled out across the nation.

Next on the agenda (from ago, I do) is the staging next summer of a three-day open-air Greek drama festival, at which six inner-London state schools will be performing two Aristophanes comedies, plus a Euripides tragedy to boot.

“The kids latch on to the ideas and the characters straight away,” says Durham classics graduate Graham Kirby, who is translating, producing and directing the productions (and seeking volunteers to help).

“There’s still a huge interest in the classical world. We have schools on the phone almost begging us for lessons.”

• Teachers can download the Iris Latin course materials for free from: