Change will not come from above

By George Connor

Image of a teacher, lecturing a group of boys, with them taking notes. 

The teacher is an old man sitting at the front, in a blue robe, with white hair and a cane. 

The boys are taking notes on papyri.
 
There is a man on the floor hunched over, as though he is cleaning it. He is thought to be a slave in this depiction.

Classics in state schools in Scotland is in the middle of a changing landscape. For so long in the doldrums, and allowed to vanish from the majority of school curricula, there seems to be signs of a turning tide. This is not to say it is vigorous good health, but perhaps we’re going in a different – and improving – direction. 

My school began offering Classical Studies in 2016/17. A small group of S6 pupils gilding their CVs with some unit assessments (not the full-blown examination course). The following year we offered full National 5, and two years later Higher became available. If there was more than one of me, by now we would offer Advanced Higher, too. I’ll explain. 

I am contracted to my authority as an English teacher. Each year my school creates a timetable for which it has enough staff to offer its various courses. The basic tension is thus: if I teach one class of Classical Studies, that is one class of English I cannot teach. Consequently, the school needs to find staff who can take that English class. This year I have four Classical Studies classes and two of English. This division is decided by a number of factors: how much the school values Classical Studies; how many pupils want Classical Studies; how much capacity there is in the English department staff; how the various classes fit together on the timetable. 

This may be dull, but it is the real meat of why Classical Studies is where it is today in Scottish state schools. 

My school has benefitted from having senior staff who see the value of Classical Studies, and are willing to be flexible with the allocation of their finite staffing resources. This is not to say that providing Classical Studies is an act of charity to a dying subject. The school benefits in numerous ways. 

If – for example – the school has 200 pupils selecting History at National 5, but only has the staff to cover classes for 150, then either the school needs to hire more History staff, or those pupils will need an alternative choice of subject. Classical Studies, step forward. 

The more subjects a school can offer using its existing staff provides a greater range of options for pupils, and greater flexibility for timetabling. If having Classical Studies means fewer staff need to be taken on, it will also save the school money. 

Classical Studies serves this overspill problem well for English, History, Religious Studies, Philosophy, Modern Studies (yes, really) and others, being a complementary subject, and thus is coming to be seen as a valuable asset for schools.  

This is not to diminish the inherent value which senior leaders and classroom teachers see in the subject in its own right. Many had Classical Studies when they were at school themselves, and understand the way in which it can inspire pupils, and combine disciplines to develop a huge range of skills.  

Of course, for a long time – arguably for forty years – Classical Studies has declined and then plateaued in terms of pupil uptake. In 2017 only 284 pupils across Scottish state schools sat Higher Classical Studies. In Latin, only 185 did. That’s for the whole of Scotland. 

However, since then, numbers in Classical Studies have started to show signs of increase. In 2021, 371 pupils sat Higher Classical Studies – an increase of nearly 100 in four years. I don’t have the latest data to hand, but based on an SQA meeting I attended last week, we have even more schools offering this year. Word seems to be out in secondary-schools that Classical Studies can benefit school-administrators while increasing options for pupils. It also provides a deep and enriching CPD opportunity for classroom teachers who – like me – see no attraction in promoted positions. 

Because most of these new Classical Studies teachers are not trained Classical Studies teachers. Indeed, it seems Moray House in Edinburgh – where Scottish Classics teacher training was previously done – no longer offers the course. Currently, you cannot train to teach Classical Studies or Latin or Classical Greek in Scotland. 

The new teachers of Classical Studies are English teachers, History teachers, RMPS teachers, Modern Studies teachers, Drama teachers… Teachers who want to offer something new to their pupils, while also stretching themselves. These are seasoned and able classroom teachers; intelligent people capable of learning as they go. Most start with National 5 and build their course knowledge from there. In the absence of official training, it is the only practical solution. 

The story is less cheerful for Latin because, understandably, this represents a very different skillset for teachers. A History teacher teaching about Athenian democracy is one thing; teaching the imperfect subjunctive is quite another. The numbers reflect this, with state school Latinists remaining more or less stable between 150 and 180 per year. (For a subject that was formerly a central part of Scottish education, this is extremely low.) I personally worry for its future. When numbers for Classical Greek tailed off, the SQA discontinued the course. No Scottish state school pupils have the option to study Homer or Sophocles in the original language now. Bearing in mind the retirement rates for Latin teachers, plans need to be put in place to encourage more staff in that direction. 

Classics is in a mixed state in the state sector. There are signs of growth in Classical Studies, and it is to be hoped that this will encourage more schools to take it on. At a time when school budgets are so stretched, it is an excellent – and progressive – way to make the most of staff capacity while enriching curricula. But the absence of official teacher training in these subjects is a worry, and one that must be addressed at a higher level. While Latin numbers are currently stable, the long-term health of the subject is still under a question mark. 

George Connor is a teacher of English and Classical Studies at Monifieth High School. In his spare time, he also runs Working Classicists, where you can find information on classics within the state sector, and a very cool community of Working Classicists online! Find the page here : https://www.workingclassicists.com/

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