linguam Latinam

The end of last academic year was a momentous time for 17 year 10 pupils from state schools across York; it marked the end of their 2 year Latin course, during which they had gone from knowing absolutely nothing about the Latin language to sitting 4 GCSE papers. To put this into perspective, most people sitting Latin GCSE will have done at least 4 years of the subject.

The Latin course first started in September 2010 and was taught by James Harrison. My involvement started in September 2011 when I was asked to deliver the course to a second group of Year 9 students; such was the success of the first year. The objectives in starting the course, as I understand them, had been to provide an academically challenging course which would allow those with interest and determination to reach the ambitious but achievable goal of obtaining a full GCSE.

On one September afternoon early in term, my colleague and I were joined by a group of terrified Year 9 students who had made the journey after a full day at their own school to us for the 2 hour class. After a quiet beginning to the course, the students soon relaxed and were jumping to take part in activities and chatting right through the break for tea and out the other side into the next lesson. They had at least an hour of homework each week, often one learning homework and a couple of written pieces, including homework set during the holidays. As we got closer to the GCSEs there were compulsory Saturday sessions to ensure more contact time during the crucial revision period. All this was juggled alongside their own school life and homework, controlled assessments, music exams, panto performances, geography field trips and the occasional unavoidable absence for illness. As well as learning the language, we used it to read ‘original Latin’; stories and letters written by Roman authors. Through these stories and through looking at archaeological sources we also learnt about all aspects of Roman life. These are the 4 elements of the GCSE papers that they sat; 2 language papers, a literature paper and a sources paper.

I spent the days before the GCSE results were published suffering from a mixture of nerves and excitement; but even before the date arrived I would have said with great confidence that the endeavour had been a success. The successes of those who are involved with this and many of the other ISSP events are a wonderful antidote to the often grade-driven environment of education. One of the main successes of the Latin course for me has been the change in pupils’ perceptions about each other, about their own abilities and about Latin; they have also grown in confidence in a language which is at best taxing and at worst a detailed network of patterns and rules, all of which have irregularities, and they have learnt to push themselves in a subject which to many does not matter. The real triumph is not that the pupils made it to the first session; but that they kept returning to lessons despite everything else going on at school and in their home and social lives, and that they have for the most part done so for reasons other than exam success.

Every teacher thinks their subject is more than worthy of inspiring dedication in their students, but many of us appreciate that our subject is not for everyone. Curious to find out their motivations for continuing with the course, I asked the pupils at the start of the second year to write their reasons down for me. Here are some of the comments:

“I’m doing something that not many people get the opportunity to do, and it is important and useful.”

“I like how Latin makes other subjects like English and languages easier, and some of the skills are applicable to science too.”

“I wanted to learn a new language and now I have.”

“I get to meet people I wouldn’t otherwise meet from my own school and from other schools.”

The course has shown that Latin is alive and thriving in York, and that the pupils appreciate that there is more to education than the rich programmes they encounter at their own schools – something which is at the heart of the ISSP partnership. The 2 year course has already started afresh with a new cohort of pupils. The competition for places was fierce, even though some of the schools involved now offer some form of Latin at their own establishments, and the ideal would of course be wider access. It is a pleasure to be part of something which aims to foster a lifelong love of learning.

Oh, by the way…. the results are excellent: 4 A* grades, 7 A, 4 B, C and D. Those involved would not have achieved any of these grades without a great deal of commitment and hard work, and for this they are to be congratulated.

Katherine Barker