Education: Pupils skip lunchbreaks to revive a `dead' language headline

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Children as young as seven are giving up their lunchbreaks to learn to speak Latin. Kathy Marks says that a new initiative to introduce the language of Ovid and Tacitus into state primary schools is proving to be an unexpected success.

For the 30 or so pupils who attend Minimus Club every Thursday lunchtime at Belle Vue Primary School, Latin is anything but a dead language. "Salve, Esthera sum," says nine-year-old Esther Berry, introducing herself over the telephone.

Minimus is a new Latin course, based around the first modern textbook to be designed specifically for children aged 7 to 10. It is being piloted this term in 20 schools and is likely to be taken up by dozens of others.

Minimus (small mouse) is the name of a pet kept by an imaginary family around which the textbook revolves. The family - mother, father and offspring, plus three slaves, mouse and cat (Vibrissa, meaning Whiskers) - live in Roman Britain, in a camp near Hadrian's Wall.

A series of stories in cartoon form introduce pupils to the rudiments of Latin language and grammar, incorporating elements of Roman civilisation and culture, and even a dash of Greek mythology. The aim is to make Latin fun and accessible to young children, and to give them a taste of what classicists believe are its wider educational benefits.

Latin was already taught in some primaries, but very patchily, and mainly in the private sector. The new project is the first concerted attempt to bring it into state schools, and has the warm support of the David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.

The textbook was written by Barbara Bell, secretary of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers, which is dedicated to keeping interest in Greek and Latin alive.

"I hope it will give Latin a whole new image, that children will see that it is not a dreary subject," said Mrs Bell.

She believes that the study of Latin enriches education in several ways. "The language itself is very precise and structured, so it helps with many other languages, including English," she said.

"The literature is second to none, and the civilisation is our history. The Romans came here and conquered us, and we can see the effects all around us."

The problem for schools like Belle Vue primary - based at Stourbridge in the West Midlands and one of seven state primaries involved in the pilot - is finding space for Latin in a crowded National Curriculum. As a consequence, many are teaching it as an optional lunchtime or after- school club.

Belle Vue's head teacher, Jan Compson, said she was taken aback by the number of children who attended voluntarily. "I would never have expected them to be so enthusiastic," she said. "I took it on as an experiment, but it has really fired their imaginations."

Esther Berry said: "When I first heard about the Latin, I thought it would be really boring. But it's really good. I can speak to my friends in a different language. I said hello to my granny in Latin the other day and she was really surprised."

Eight-year-old Christopher Casey said he enjoyed finding out what the Romans got up to. "I like saying the Latin words," he said. "I play football or play with my friends in other lunchtimes, but I prefer going to the Minimus Club."