Knowledge is power (or scientia potentia est, as they say in east London)

Oxford dons bid to improve inner-city pupils with centre for classical education in Hackney

A sixth-form college serving one of Britain's poorest communities has set up a devoted classics centre to give inner-city children a grounding in Latin and Greek.

The centre, which has been established under the guidance of Oxford academics, aims to challenge the notion that liberal education is the reserve of the privileged.

Pupils at the BSix Brooke House Sixth Form College in Hackney will be schooled in the classics in an environment that replicates an Oxbridge college. The East End Classics Centre launched and accepts its first cohort of A -level students in September, with plans to offer Greek and Latin courses in 2014. The centre boasts a "Garden of the Ancient World" decorated with statues of ancient thinkers.

Dr Peter Claus, a senior research fellow in history at Pembroke College , Oxford, and one of the people behind the project, said: "The Classics is a much-neglected subject in inner-city areas like Hackney. It's something that's not necessarily thought to be vocationally driven but a perfect example of a subject that … in fact informs so many of our assumptions about the world. In my experience these kids are hungry for that kind of knowledge."

Dr Armand D'Angour, a tutor in classics at Jesus College, Oxford, will teach A-level students at the centre next year. He said the classics' engagement with an ancient multicultural world was apt for a college like BSix, with a diverse pool of pupils.

He added: "I gave one of the first classics classes at BSix and it was a huge success. There were kids from all kinds of backgrounds, many with veils on their faces, all shapes and sizes.

"I just put a Latin couplet by Catullus in front of them: 'odi et amo' ('I hate and love'). I went through it and they discovered they knew every word. 'Odious', they knew. They knew 'et' because of the French. There was a tremendous sense of responsiveness. Over the longer term a small but thriving community of classicists should be a permanent feature at BSix.'"

Scholars from Oxford University and Birkbeck, University of London, will give degree-level lectures to supplement the A-level courses and are helping to design the curriculum.

The project is the brainchild of the college's principle Ken Warman and Dr Claus, who became an academic despite leaving school without A levels. The college already boasts an Oxbridge-style library, known as the Red Room, where professors teach undergraduate-level tutorials. The books on its shelves, some more than 200 years old, are available for any of the college's 1,500 pupils to borrow.

Ian Power, Raising Aspirations co-ordinator for Bsix College, said: "It's a case of creating the right surroundings so when pupils arrive at somewhere like Oxbridge for an interview it doesn't overwhelm them."

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