(Extract from) Education: Foreign Language Teaching: House of Lords Question for Short Debate

4.36 pm

Lord Aberdare (CB): My Lords, I am pleased that the motion refers to “mandatory” rather than “modern” foreign language teaching, since I shall talk mainly about Latin and Ancient Greek. I, too, echo the tributes that have been paid to my noble friend Lady Coussins for her leadership in this area.

First, I congratulate the Government on making foreign language learning compulsory at key stage 2, with Latin and Ancient Greek included among the languages available. As we have heard, from an early age children have an enormous capacity for learning

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languages. My own granddaughter, aged just five, who lives in Moscow, is the most fluent Russian speaker—in fact the only one—of all four members of her family, having spent some two years in a Russian school; and her English-language skills have certainly not suffered.

Classical languages, especially Latin, are particularly helpful in learning about how languages work. I can think of no better way of getting to grips with grammar—as the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, and I experienced—and Latin is directly relevant to the study of a whole group of modern European languages, so many of whose words and idioms derive from it. Beyond that, Latin and Greek can open a window into a much wider realm of literature, history, drama, law, philosophy, science and culture. They can combine well with other languages at primary level, each feeding off and reinforcing the others.

There are excellent materials available for teaching Latin at this level. The Minimus course, developed by Barbara Bell of the Primary Latin Project, has sold more than 130,000 copies and is widely and successfully used in schools teaching Latin to seven to 10 year-olds. It features a Roman family living near Hadrian’s Wall, including their slaves, a cat and a mouse, Minimus. The resources available include books, games, songs, a musical, comic strips, animations, finger puppets and more. Minimus is even on Twitter, although I imagine he should squeak rather than tweet.

I am encouraged by the fact that there seems to be growing enthusiasm among schools—including state schools—to offer classical language teaching, which has for too long been seen as the preserve mainly of independent schools. This has been very much down to the efforts of private organisations such as Friends of Classics, Classics for All, the Primary Latin Project, the Iris Project, the Mayor of London’s Love Latin scheme, Classics in Communities and others. These offer encouragement, support and resources, including financial, to schools wanting to try teaching Latin or Greek.

One project, started with a grant from Classics for All, has sought to introduce and embed Latin into a cluster of schools in North Walsham in Norfolk. This has employed four teachers, working with other suitable adults, to deliver the Minimus course at the primary schools. A further, important part of the project seeks to enable students from the primaries to continue with Latin up to GCSE level at the secondary school. The project has now spread to two other clusters.

There is much good work going on, but projects like these face some challenges, which I hope the Minister may seek to address. First, children studying Latin, let alone Greek, at primary level have only a one in four chance of being able to continue at secondary level. Again, excellent resources are available, notably from the Cambridge School Classics Project. Both Latin and Greek can count towards the EBacc qualification at key stage 4 but there is something of a black hole at key stage 3. Secondary schools cannot offer Latin as a language within the key stage 3 national curriculum, only as an option outside it.

Secondly, not enough new teachers are being trained to deliver Latin and other classical subjects, and there is little or no government support for training such

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teachers. Much teacher training has to be carried out by volunteers. The Norfolk project has had to make use of retired teachers, teaching assistants, governors, parents and others with suitable basic skills, as well as existing staff, including teachers of modern foreign languages. I hope the Minister is willing to look into ways of working with the classics community to tackle these issues. Perhaps he, or an appropriate ministerial colleague, might consider meeting some of the leading promoters of Latin teaching in primary schools to understand the challenges they face and to explore ways of meeting them, in order to ensure that the welcome inclusion of classical languages in the mandatory language teaching programme achieves the success it deserves.


Extract from the reply by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Nash) (Con):

The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, raised the issue of classics, which I know is very dear to his heart. I reassure him that from 2014-15 we have more than doubled the level of bursary that teacher trainees in classical languages will receive to match the amount that trainees in modern foreign languages get—up to £20,000 for a trainee with a first-class degree. As he mentioned, Classics for All is receiving £250,000 from the London Schools Excellence Fund. He also asked about a meeting to discuss the creation of more language teachers and training. I will suggest this to my honourable friend Liz Truss, who has responsibility for that area, to see whether she would like to meet.