Aldo Williams: Classic case of sex appeal

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February is the cruellest month for teachers of the tougher option subjects – such as physics, Latin or even, now that they’re no longer compulsory, a modern language. Across the country Year Nines (old money Third Year) are choosing their GCSE options for Years 10 and 11. As a classics teacher trying to extol the rigours of Latin as a virtue, I can easily get gloomy as I look at the opposition, where every year it seems some sexy new subject gets added to the list as we broaden the net ever wider to catch hearts and minds. First the English department branched out into media studies, then along came sociology, a blossoming of drama, in skipped GCSE physical education. Latterly came dance, photography and film studies.

So there’s my problem, shared with colleagues teaching the other knottier subjects – how do we compete? Worry, worry, worry. But isn’t Latin making something of a comeback? I’m not sure our kids have read about that, because it’s tougher to recruit each year. And here’s Choice Evening when pupils and parents come to research, or more likely confirm, their preferences. And always the question I dread: “Mr Williams, Maggie is unsure whether to do Latin or dance/film/photography. She loves dance/film/photography but she likes Latin, too”.

Maggie smiles and says nothing. Maggie, who understands in a flash all the Latin I can throw at her, and then some. Maggie who will, for sure, be studying something academic at university in several years time and who, stocky like her mother and father, will never be a dancer. So I turn to my potential customer (yes, it’s a marketplace).

“Maggie, are you doing any other creative subjects? Art, drama, music?”

And Maggie chirps up in her usual confident tones: “I wanted to do all of them but it’s come down to just photography and dance”.


“Yes. I love them – and Latin”.

“Maggie, do you think you’ll go on with either of these to A-level?”

“Maybe dance, not photography even though you love it. And dance: will you perhaps be doing that at university?”

“Maybe. Probably not. I think I might do English or French, but I’m not sure.”

Of course she’s not sure. She’s 14, or possibly still 13. She shouldn’t be anything like sure just yet. Brightly, I turn to mum in hope of support.

“What do you think, Mum?”

“We just want Maggie to be happy. What do you think she should do, Mr Williams?”

What do I think? I’ll tell you (only I don’t). “Your daughter loves learning. She’ll be getting straight A or A* grades in everything. But she’s choosing her GCSEs like it’s hobbies evening. She needs an academic education. All these bloody creatives. They’re not there for the likes of Maggie to waft through her GCSE years in a haze of pleasure. This girl needs to be filling her head with all the intricacies of skills and knowledge that a sophisticated civilisation has built up over the centuries. Get real.”

But what I actually say is: “Well, if Maggie thinks that an academic subject is probably going to be her route at university, then it’s a broad academic profile that she wants to pick up. Maybe just one creative? That would leave room for Latin, and Latin does feed well into English and French. Latin’s tougher than some other subjects (steady boy, no slagging off the oppo) but it can sharpen the mind. And universities know it’s tough. So it helps your application stand out. What do you think, Maggie?”

“I don’t know. I’ll think about it.”

Cut to the following September with lazy afternoon sunshine sloping into my classroom and 15 candidates (it turned out to be a good year) up and ready for the two-year dash to the GCSE exam. We have a lot to learn. As state school pupils, this lot have only had a handful of Latin lessons before the GCSE course starts. But it’s no great matter. Better a keen class who want to learn Latin than a whole year group pushed and prodded for a lesson a week over three years.

“Servus vinum portat. Subject-verb-object? Anyone?” A couple of hands go up but not, alas, Maggie’s. For while we begin to stretch our minds with Latin word order and noun cases; Maggie chose to stretch her limbs and eyes with dance and photography.

The writer, a former classics teacher in a comprehensive school, is writing under an assumed name