The excitement of etymology at Sidney Stringer Academy

Sidney Stringer Academy in Coventry was awarded a grant worth £6,370 by Classics for All to introduce A-level Latin for seven students and to make Latin GCSE a permanent option in the curriculum. The grant will also go towards introducing Latin literacy for 30 pupils in Year 8; beginners’ ancient Greek to 15 current Year 8 pupils; and a Latin course for 210 students in Key Stage 3. The Sidney Stringer Academy is part of the West Midlands (Coventry) classics hub.

Nicola Neto, head of classics at Sidney Stringer Academy, told us how the school was getting on.

Sidney Stringer is an inner-city non-selective academy for 11 to 18 year olds which has a rich cultural diversity; the vast majority of pupils come from a British-Asian Muslim background. The local area has a very high level of unemployment and social and economic disadvantage. A high proportion of students receive free school meals and the 16-19 Bursary Fund.

The Academy began offering timetabled GCSE Latin, to be taken over two years, to a cohort of 12 gifted and talented students in September 2013. In 2014, provision was expanded to start teaching Latin to a further cohort of 16 gifted and talented Year 8 students and, as I write this, Year 7 students are competing for the chance to begin learning Latin in September 2015. I say competing because Latin is phenomenally popular. It might seem strange but students have never asked me what the point of Latin is or why they should learn it. From the outset their reason was quite simple. If you were rich you went to Henry V111 (local independent school) and learned Latin and if you didn’t learn Latin you were missing out.

At Sidney Stringer Academy in inner-city Coventry the students equated learning Latin with privilege. Quite remarkably, we have here in the centre of Coventry a group of mostly Muslim children who see quite clearly that they live in a society where Latin, ancient Greek and the Classics are the linguistic regalia of entitlement and they want a share of it.

Students actually love declining and conjugating and see a beauty in the language of ancient poets and warriors.

A slightly different slant on this was posited by Dr Peter Stewart of the Classical Art Research Centre, whom I had invited into the academy to talk to our Year 11 Latin students about Roman portraiture. He was taken aback by the students’ absolute enthusiasm and engagement and quite shocked by the queue at the door of students from other classes who wanted to meet him. He concluded that perhaps it was the lure of the ‘exotic’ which drew them in. After so many years of being near obsolete, the classics had gained a new glamour! What I hadn’t expected when I started teaching Latin classes here, though, was the students’ sheer joy of learning Latin for its intrinsic beauty and the excitement of etymology. Students actually love declining and conjugating and see a beauty in the language of ancient poets and warriors.

We have now gone beyond the language of cultural empowerment and, put quite simply by the students, ‘It’s beautiful,’ (Mariah). ‘I just love it. It’s just fun,’ (Mohammed). That is why I am so grateful to Classics for All. With its help I want more students to have what the others – both in this academy and in the independent sector – are having. I started out with a fairly limited goal, which was to offer Latin to gifted and talented students only and to make competition for places in the Latin class hugely competitive. To some extent I do still believe in my latter goal because I believe that Latin (along with all education) should be seen as a prize for which it is worth striving, but I now also believe that students of all backgrounds and abilities can take something from it.

Having recognised the demand for Latin across the academy, we will start teaching Latin to mixed-ability groups in Year 7 from September 2015. I have been clear from the start that Latin will only be given a fighting chance if timetabled within the normal school day and not classified as an ‘Enrichment’ activity after school. In order to do this I have slipped it into the English timetabled allocation. This has involved quite a bit of negotiation with the English department but, having presented the case as improving English literacy through Latin, they have come on board.

My main aim is simply to bring sheer pleasure and enjoyment to the students through the study of language and stories.

This will present some challenges because we have many students in the academy who come in with a very low level of literacy, including a significant proportion with English as a second language. We intend to start off with Minimus. My main aim is simply to bring sheer pleasure and enjoyment to the students through the study of language and stories. I realise, however, that for initiative to take root I will need to prove the impact on literacy. For this reason students will be carefully base-lined before the course and monitored rigorously throughout in order to gauge improvement in English as much as in Latin.

Money from Classics for All is being used to offer Latin to students of all abilities in Year 7 now, and ancient Greek is to be offered from September 2015. We are also training more staff to help with the increased demand. Thank you for helping students at Sidney Stringer to see Latin not only as the language of privilege but also the language of joy.

Find our how schools and hubs can get involved with CfA.