Past masters: Classical Greek is back on the curriculum

Why is a classical Greek GCSE on offer at the progressive Hampshire school?
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Here's a question: which top British independent school has introduced a classical Greek GCSE in order to bring new intellectual rigour and academic challenge to its pupils? The answer could be any number of schools whose monkish or military traditions make them ideal candidates for introducing a programme of classical learning to their pupils.

In fact, the surprising answer is Bedales, the progressive co-educational Hampshire school, whose holistic approach to schooling includes teaching pupils to bake their own bread and offering them the chance to study sheep dipping and timber-frame building.

Bedales has long been known for its informal culture and is a popular choice for London's media and arts parents looking for a boarding school. Pupils do not wear uniforms, address teachers by their first names, and are more likely to be found pursuing creative activities than playing competitive sport. Lily Allen, Daniel Day-Lewis, Viscount Linley and Sophie Dahl are among the wide array of well-known former pupils.

But, says headmaster Keith Budge, it is quite wrong to think that a progressive education can't also be rigorous and challenging. "Our central aim is to encourage and develop inquisitive thinkers. We want to ensure all avenues for developing academic rigour are explored, and we will look at any subject that meets our aims. We have got to be progressive in our thinking, and quite often to make progress you have to go back and look at how things used to be done. We would never let an outdated prejudice, like the one some people might have against classics, get in the way of our doing things that are interesting and different."

In fact, classical Greek has been on offer at the school for some years. "For a long time, there has been quite a bit of interest in the subject, with people taking it on an individual basis. This move to set up a GCSE course is fanning those embers into flames. If there is enthusiasm from students and teachers about studying one of the most exciting disciplines around, it would be bizarre for the school to stand in their way."

Behind the curriculum development is the school's enthusiastic head of classics, Mike Lambert, an Oxford classics graduate, who decided to launch the Greek GCSE when he arrived at the school last September. "I thought it would make sense to formalise it, as there were already so many individuals doing it in one way or another. I've got six students studying it this year, out of a year group of 95, but only 12 that year had any exposure to Greek in year nine, so that's a pretty good take-up. Next year we're going to run a taster week for the whole of the year group, so I expect to have some interest coming out of that. After all, it's exciting, jumping into a completely different language."

His students agree. "I find it fascinating because of the alphabet," says Angus Carey-Douglas, 14. "It's really fun, and I like Latin so I thought I would probably like this." He also sees a family connection in the subject. "My grandfather did classics at university and then went into the Foreign Office, so I thought it would be good if I tried it, too."

Olivia Kane, 14, was similarly interested. "I felt it would make me stand out a bit, because not a lot of students study ancient Greek."

Rufus Rock, 14, adds: "I really enjoy the subject, and it helps a lot with Latin and modern languages. I love learning about the way all the words have been formed and how similar Greek words are to those in romance languages. It's fascinating picking up the connections."

In fact, says Lambert, who is hoping some of these students will want to go on and study A-level, research in America shows that studying ancient Greek improves verbal reasoning and lateral thinking, while classics in general have long been known for helping students learn other languages and strengthening their all-round learning.

But he admits there is a missionary element to his enthusiasm. "I do feel if you can teach it, you probably ought to teach it. You have a responsibility to the subject, to keep it going – although I'm aware we'll need to keep an eye on the effect it has on some other things, like German. But it's always going to be a niche interest. It's never going to take away the lure of the more popular subjects."

The new GCSE is just one part of Bedales' move to expand its curriculum. Pupils now take five core GCSEs, then choose from a large number of other courses, including 10 internally designed Bedales assessed courses, among them dance, outdoor work, theatre arts, and philosophy, religion and ethics, which is rapidly becoming one of the most popular courses in the school. These courses were launched four years ago, and are now officially recognised on the Ucas entry form. "The school has always been innovative in its approach, and our students are passionately interested in new ideas," says Budge. "This, along with classical Greek, shows just how willing they are to engage with things that are challenging and different."

However, the school remains committed to its tradition of hands-on learning, and, while GCSE pupils wrestle with Greek letters in their classroom, other students are enjoying a classics day outside, trying on Roman swords and helmets and watching the Roman food expert Sally Grainger stir up a soup of barley, chickpeas, fennel and lentils.

Roman-dressed Victoria Fox, 18, who has studied Latin "and a little Greek as an extra-curricular extra", says studying classics is very useful. "I'm going to university to study maths, and I find there are a lot of similarities between translating Latin and solving maths problems."

It has also given her a gimlet eye for detail. When complimented on her toga, she quickly replies: "This is not a toga, it's something called a peplos. In ancient Rome, the only women who wore togas were prostitutes!"