Education: Opinion

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The Independent Online
Three cheers for Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, who is urging the return of Latin to the curriculum of state schools - excluded for the past 30 years, he claims, because of accusations of elitism.

The exclusion of Latin is discrimination at its worst. It means that any parents who want their child to learn Latin must either choose a private school, which they might not be able to afford, hire a tutor or miss out altogether. Dr Tate is right. The politics of envy have gone far enough. Common sense as well as Latin should be restored to the school syllabus immediately.

But I'm biased. Having been made to study this boring old subject from the age of seven - yes, I was educated privately - I would now like to say to my parents somewhere up there that I am very grateful to them. Yes, really.

From this you may think I relished my Latin lessons. While this is not quite true, I did, however, enjoy them for all the wrong reasons. What sport it was to feed questions to poor Miss Griffiths, our elderly Latin teacher, encouraging her to respond joyously and at great length, enabling us to have a good muckabout at the back of class in peace. The poor woman fell for the bait every time because she was totally in love with her subject. How we (me) led her on and, yes, I do regret my cruelty now.

I also regret my indolence. Latin, I now realise, touches on so many things. Not only was I absorbing history, I was also being helped with the study of Shakespeare - think of Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Thanks to Latin, I know the roots of words. When in Italy, for example, I can suss out the written word in seconds, even if I am not so hot at speaking it. With hindsight, it is as if I did a foundation course in architecture, language, history and literature. And because I was made to memorise huge chunks of the wretched language for all those weekly tests, Virgil & Co got stuck in my head for ever, absorbed in my being, without my realising it.

When it was my daughter's turn for Latin, it was action replay time. "What's it for?" she asked, and was furious when, at that time being a fervent, if foolish, believer in state education, I scoured London for a comprehensive that offered the subject. There was just one. (I suspect they only had Latin on the syllabus because it was an ex-grammar school and they had forgotten to remove it.)

"Latin is optional," my daughter pointed out and I replied that, as far as she was concerned, it certainly was not. History repeated itself further. She resented her Latin teacher for the same reasons I had resented mine. He was boring. Perhaps all Latin teachers are. Besides, she said, he made her feel stupid when she asked questions - so she stopped asking. Inevitably, she failed her GCSE. Fortunately, this was such a tremendous blow to her pride that when I found a young female tutor to coach her for the retake, she was delighted. For the first time the subject was made interesting - yes, it can be done. She got an A.

Life's funny. She, too, is grateful. "Latin is a discipline," she says thoughtfully. "It's like two subjects rolled into one: language and history. I feel educated." At least I did something right.