Fitting classics into the curriculum in Solihull primary schools

Unity is a collaborative group of 18 schools based in North Solihull in the West Midlands, which lies within an area of high socio-economic deprivation. The schools are located in the lowest 10 per cent of the UK in terms of deprivation and achievement. This is reflected in the pupil premium and free-school-meal statistics of the individual schools, some of which have 50 to 60 per cent of children entitled to claim. They were granted £10,420 over three years, and the project was managed in collaboration with the University of Birmingham. It is part of the West Midlands (Birmingham) classics hub.

Anna Donnelly, the literacy adviser in Solihull, told us more about the project.

In such a challenging context, many people may not expect Latin to be on the curriculum. The work that Unity began last year was ambitious. One two-form primary school made Latin their official language of choice from Year 3 to 6. Four other primary schools wanted to deliver Latin to their gifted and talented upper Key Stage 2 groups, and the secondary school that decided to get involved wanted to use it to challenge their gifted and talented Year 9s. None of these teachers had ever taught Latin, and only one had studied it, and that was, to quote her, ‘Donkey’s years ago!’

The schools for whom I work are challenged by commonly low literacy levels in intake, and schools struggle to ‘close the gap’. In this context, it’s fair to ask: why teach Latin? Tamara Green asserts that more than 60 per cent of all English words have Greek or Latin roots. Indeed, according to some sources, in the vocabulary of the sciences and technology the figure rises to more than 90 per cent.

Children from Coleshill Heath School baking Roman treats on their 'graduation day', organised by Jo Johnson at Solihull School to celebrate a year of Latin learning. Dr Elena Theodorakopoulos (Senior Lecturer in Classics, Department of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, University of Birmingham), along with Solihull School's headmaster, handed each child a very smart certificate.

In addition, etymology and morphology is an explicit part of the New English Primary National Curriculum from Year 3 to 6; schools will have to teach it in one form or another anyway, even if Latin is not their language of choice! However, it would certainly make sense if Latin is their language of choice. How many primary teachers have you met who feel equipped to teach a modern foreign language with confidence? Not many is my guess. Pronunciation is, perhaps, the largest barrier. The 2014 Primary National Curriculum for Languages at Key Stage 2 says, ‘The starred (*) content above will not be applicable to ancient languages.’ This means that four out of 12 criteria are not applicable if you choose Latin of Greek because they are not oral languages. In short, teaching Latin and Greek means less content to deliver, but lays the foundations for strong modern foreign language understanding at Key Stage 3.

Looking at the New Primary History Curriculum (Romans and Greeks) it’s clear that studying the ‘Roman Empire and its impact on Britain’ and ‘Ancient Greece – a study of Greek life and achievements and their influence on the western world’, are statutory requirements. Exploring ‘the legacy of Greek or Roman culture (art, architecture or literature) on later periods in British history, including the present day’, is advised. What better way to examine these elements than looking at the language used and the material culture in which they were situated? Both Minimus and The Cambridge Latin Course offer this.

‘It’s time to confess: whilst I’m an English adviser, I myself had never had the opportunity to learn any Latin before this project. Perhaps that was an advantage because I had few preconceptions about the sort of Latin delivery that those who studied it years ago might remember. I was not ‘the expert’, but learning alongside the teachers involved in the project. This was part of the reason for its success: I could understand the challenges that a new language would pose for them as practitioners because I was feeling them too.

Getting the project off the ground was a challenge, but in my role as English adviser I wanted to support teachers in any way that I could to attain the new 2014 English standards. I’m a great believer in seeking out experts – which is exactly what I did. I contacted the University of Birmingham and arranged to meet Dr Elena Theodorakopoulos, senior lecturer in classics. She has been utterly instrumental in the success of the project. We talked in her office about the possibilities for the project, and from that initial conversation I garnered interest from schools. Some were keen from the outset; some, I have to admit, took a little gentle persuasion.

However, once I knew that I had the makings of a viable bid, Elena and I set to work. She looked at my bid as a critical friend and pointed me in the right direction, in terms of what Classics for All was looking for. After several drafts, we submitted and successfully took receipt of over £10,000. Elena also created a link between our collaborative and Solihull School, which is independent.

Solihull School’s most wonderful classicist, Joanna Johnson, has been supporting our teachers by delivering regular Latin twilights to build confidence…. Sessions were offered as part of the school’s charitable status, as too is the imminent ‘Latin Graduation Day’, held at the school for those who have been doing Latin as their language. Classics for All does not fund books, so we needed to be creative to solve this problem – with thanks to Solihull School and the University of Birmingham classics students, the ‘hub school’ has been gifted 60 Minimus books, so that the students can access the materials.

This funding has had – and is continuing to have – a dramatic impact upon many students and staff in our collaborative. Teachers from all of the schools have received several Minimus training sessions from the author, Barbara Bell. This has certainly had an impact on the confidence of staff delivering Latin. I have found that once teachers get going with the teaching they see the benefits for students in a tangible way, and this has created a passion and excitement within some teachers that I scarcely thought possible at the start.

My secondary school has gone from no Latin, to Latin for gifted and talented, to offering a route to GCSE from September: the modern foreign language teachers saw the links immediately, and training awoke their interest in Latin, which they had long forgotten (they had both done A-level in their teens). In addition, the funding has paid for significant enrichment opportunities: a ‘Launch Day’ to celebrate starting Latin; a visit to the Corinium Museum for 110 pupils and accompanying staff; and a travel to their ‘graduation’ at Solihull School.

In terms of lessons learned, I’d have to say that patience has been the main one. On the surface, Latin is not a priority for schools. It’s up to us to make it so by explaining its relevance. We must seek to make professional links with experts to support us. We must operate on an individual level and listen to individual teacher needs – one size does not fit all. Some Latin is better than no Latin, so even if it starts as a small group, we are still sowing the seed.

Where are we now? Well, after just over a year of input, the project is going strong. One school has decided not to continue with the project, but the rest are still involved. Indeed, one secondary has decided to offer the GCSE, and one primary has just asked me to provide Latin training to three teachers in Year 4 so that all 90 children in that year group can access Latin to support their Roman topic. Another secondary school has started to become interested in the project too, now word has spread.

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