Classics Outreach in Scotland

By Dr. Alex Imrie

What even is outreach? In technical-speak, it is the term used to describe work by any group, individual or organisation to connect its ideas and values with another demographic or audience. Crucially, good outreach activity is targeted at those who otherwise lack access to said ideas or services normally; it aims to meet the receiving community on their own ground, literally reaching out to them, rather than expecting them to attend upon the provider. This is similar to but technically distinct from public engagement, which shares many of the same goals as outreach work, but is usually more focused on ways of sharing research activity with the public and gathering further data thereafter (this is a key element in many universities’ submissions to the infamous REF – the Research Excellence Framework. For more on public engagement, see www.publicengagement.ac.uk.)

Generally, universities, particularly the self-styled elite of the Russell Group, have been rather poor historically in their outreach agenda. Until relatively recently, efforts have mainly consisted of university departments dispatching scholars to deliver lectures to a small circle of largely independent schools. In outreach terms, this rather feels like preaching to the choir, since these receiving communities are already reliable citadels of Classics tuition. On the one hand, I believe that there is always value to be found in schools and universities collaborating (bringing the best of subject knowledge and pedagogical expertise together). On the other hand, however, many past efforts have felt to me – who attended a large state school with no access to Classics at all – as arguably entrenching the deep class divide at the heart of our subject, rather than mitigating it.

In a Scottish context, however, I cannot be unflinchingly hard on these rather weak past engagements. University departments in Scotland have been faced with a landscape in which Classics collapsed within the state sector throughout the 1980s and 1990s. This is one reason among many why universities such as Edinburgh are so reliant on recruiting students either from beyond Scotland’s borders or from an independent school background. Universities must speak to their primary markets and put simply, the most dependable concentration of students in Classics is to be found in the private sector. While this is understandable, the fact remains that such a course of action will inevitably result in a further marginalisation of the subject, up to an including higher education. This is a dangerous situation when university vice-chancellors have proven themselves only too willing to axe even high-performing Classics programmes.

Importantly, however, this is not an irretrievable situation. Targeted outreach work has already proven itself as a way of opening access to the discipline, enthusing new people to the subject and thereby diversifying the cohort of classicists at school and university alike. There is no easy fix or quick response to the problems faced by a discipline so old and with such ingrained power structures, but the die is not yet cast: I believe that it is a cause still worth fighting for. 

In what follows here, I will offer an insight into my own entry into Classics Outreach, give a sense of what I actually do in this area, and offer some preliminary thoughts on why I think that it is valuable. 

Working in Classics Outreach

Outreach was something which I became increasingly aware of during doctorate. Without any real direction or support framework, however, my efforts were restricted to participating in as many activities during Edinburgh University’s Flexible Learning Week as I could. Following the completion of my PhD in 2015, I spent a couple years on different temporary teaching contracts before I was alerted to a potential job being offered by the Classical Association of Scotland, in conjunction with the charity Classics for All. A survey had been undertaken which identified the dire state of Classics’ survival in Scottish state schools (only 18 respondents offering any Classical Studies, with only 11 offering Latin in any form). Everyone agreed that something had to be done, and so money was ringfenced to support CAS to engage a National Outreach Co-ordinator. I was fortunate enough to secure the position in late September 2017. Since then, I have worked at the forefront of a multi-agency campaign to support and bolster the Classics community in Scotland. 

Primary Education

It was decided early that we would focus efforts in primary schools around Latin. This was for a couple reasons: firstly, Latin outreach efforts had already proven successful for Classics for All across England, and projects such as the Iris Project and Literacy through Latin had shown similar appetite for the subject in Scotland. Secondly, through discussing our ambitions with officers of Glasgow and Edinburgh city councils, it became clear that there was a natural marketing strategy for Latin as part of the Scottish Government’s Languages 1+2 policy (whereby pupils must be exposed to two additional languages before the end of their primary education). Local authorities across Scotland commonly struggle to meet the demands of this strategy, since primary teachers may not be sufficiently confident to deliver new languages even when their busy timetables allow for such classes. 

Our approach has been to assist teachers with materials and delivery. While we value highly the efforts made by voluntary programmes and new initiatives such as the St Andrews Latin Outreach Scheme, all of which add inestimable value to the Scottish educational landscape, we have sought to work on a longer-term model which empowers and trains the class teachers (the pedagogical experts, after all) to lead Latin units themselves. To this end, we initially worked with a small group of teachers in Glasgow, training them in the use of the Minimus textbook. This has grown into a programme now led by Glasgow City Council, which includes Latin as part of its CPD and twilight training programmes for teachers in that authority and those neighbouring. Where teachers with pre-existing Latin have made themselves aware to us, we have also supported them to offer classes more quickly, with a prime example being a school in Aberdeenshire which now offers Latin to over 70 pupils every year. 

This approach requires patience and a commitment to the strategic objective (rather than seeking flashy ‘soundbite’ moments), but it is steadily embedding Latin in schools across different areas, from Glasgow, through the central belt and beyond. 

More recently we have started to develop materials that teachers can ‘pick up and play’ in Classical Studies, too. While it is common for pupils in Primary Five (ages 8-9) to receive a short unit on the Romans, consultation with pupils and parents revealed the massive popularity of classical mythology. With that in mind, last year I worked with teachers from Dundee and Angus to develop Meet the Olympians: a standalone unit which can be taught over 8-10 weeks, and guides pupils through the ancient deities via fun tasks designed to address key competencies in literacy, numeracy, wellbeing and cultural awareness as required by Scotland’s (in)famous Curriculum for Excellence.

Secondary Education

Most of our efforts since late 2017 have been focused on secondary education, since this is ultimately where the subject will live or die in Scotland. It is undoubtedly the area in which there is the most potential for expansion, and yet is simultaneously beset with obstacles and problems to be overcome. 

Like our Primary approach, we decided early on to support teachers wherever we could with materials, although we are obviously more constrained with what we may innovate, since the syllabi in Latin and Classical Studies are fixed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), Scotland’s solitary exam board. My first move was to join SQA’s National Qualification Support Teams for Classical Languages and Classical Studies. These teams, comprising experienced teachers, are responsible for guiding policy on what should be taught and examined. Gaining a place on these committees was crucial to gaining a sense of what might be developed, and being able to talk more authoritatively when liaising between schools and universities (whose expectations of Latin especially have historically diverged in Scotland). 

We next sought to offer a more standardised packet of materials surrounding the Higher Classical Studies syllabus which could be disseminated across schools, to support newer teachers and build in a level of internal consistency regarding the materials on offer to schools across the country. While this was a necessary move, it did not address the stark reality of how few state secondaries offered the subject at all. Simply, we needed to start encouraging more schools to offer the subject.

This is arguably the most important and yet one of the most difficult aspects of Classics outreach in Scotland. The problem we face is that there has been no provider of teacher training in Classics based in Scotland for over a decade. This has made it very difficult to make the case for Classics as a standalone option in schools currently. I was therefore required to investigate an alternative route to augmenting the number of schools in Scotland offering Classics. 

My solution for now has been to focus on teachers who are already qualified in other humanities subjects (primarily History, Modern Studies, Religious & Moral Education, and English) and encourage them to seek dual qualification status with the General Teaching Council of Scotland (since while the subject has no training avenue locally, the GTCS continues to recognise and certify teachers who possess the requisite training and credits). I therefore negotiated a unique support plan with Classics for All to support around half of all training costs accrued by teachers in seeking dual qualification. Starting in early 2019 with this scheme, we have since seen around five teachers achieve dual qualification status. 

This approach is not without its flaws: it is a slow process which requires the teacher to acquire any missing credits in Classics from institutions such as the Open University, a process which can take anywhere from a couple months to a whole year. It furthermore places a great personal load onto the teachers involved, since they must undertake this alongside their regular employment. The benefit of this approach, however, is that school leadership teams are more enthusiastic about supporting the scheme (since this means being able to offer Classics at no additional cost to the schools’ annual budgets). It is also highly sustainable. The teachers who have followed this scheme with us have uniformly made a success of their Classics offering and have proselytised colleagues, moreover. Once again, the landscape in Scottish education has required an approach which demands patience, but which leads to the creation of Classics departments which are hard to shift.

Underpinning all these efforts is something which is integral to effective outreach: community building. When I began work with CAS, there was a small network of predominantly independent school teachers who worked to keep the flame of Classics burning in their realms of influence. After talking with the chair of that group, we agreed to expand to include teachers who offered any form of Latin and/or Classical Studies at bi-annual meetings. This was a moment where my zeal for the subject needed to be tempered with humility. Given the universities’ apparent disinterest in school teaching, I should not have been surprised to be met with no small suspicion and cynicism at the first gathering. ‘Nice to meet you, but universities couldn’t give a shit about what we do in schools’ was the parting shot from one such member… As much as this might have caused me to bristle, it demonstrates that the discipline was, even in 2018, divided in a way which was to everybody’s detriment. Nevertheless, over the course of the last couple years, our network has grown from a couple dozen to over sixty members who either teach classical subjects actively, or who are interested in doing so. 

I cannot claim any special secret or answer here, much of our network’s later success and expansion rests on the shoulders of the same teachers who sustained it for years. I believe my primary achievement here has been to bring school and university professionals together, and thus break down some of the mental barriers which exist in our profession: university academics’ cluelessness about school provision and schoolteachers’ feeling of being ignored by institutions with the wealth and power to assist them. This is not a fait accompli, there is still much to be done, but I believe it shows the value in persistence and consistency as an outreach operative: building personal relationships and then bringing those connections together. 

Other Work

Schools outreach is only part of my varied work as outreach co-ordinator with CAS, with the rest of my time devoted to wider initiatives, designed to foster a general community of classicists in Scotland and beyond. Two key examples stand out for me.

Firstly, I have tried to use my work with schools as a springboard into developing relationships with heritage organisations such as the National Museums of Scotland. We have collaborated in producing videos based on the current collections now available on the CAS YouTube Channel. We hope that this will be the first of many collaborations with institutions across the country, highlighting that Classics and ancient artefacts can be accessed by communities all over Scotland. 

The most significant community project that I have been involved with to date has undoubtedly been the Ancient Voices programme. This began life as an attempt to re-build a Scottish-based languages summer school; there had been Greek & Latin schools in Edinburgh and elsewhere historically, but these slowly died over a number of years. Conscious that Scottish-based learners (whether students, teachers or general enthusiasts) had to travel hundreds of miles to access the nearest summer school, a colleague at University of Aberdeen and I offered the inaugural CAS Summer School in 2019. This was a modest success but hosting any summer initiative in Edinburgh in the immediate prelude of the Festival was always going to be a logistical challenge. We therefore planned for alternative venues in 2020, only to be halted by the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. This proved to be a blessing in disguise. We realised that by offering fully online units, structured to avoid imposing excessively on work/personal schedules, we could offer people a much more accessible experience. 

By embracing a fully online posture, we were able to realise more fully our ambition of democratising access to our tuition geographically. Not only did we engage a more diverse domestic audience, but we found that we tapped into pockets of interest globally for whom prolonged study of Classics was less accessible or practical. It was particularly gratifying to see strong representation from across the Global South, leading to truly interesting discussions about language learning amongst our student cohort. Our 2022 iteration of the programme attracted more than 100 registrations (no mean feat, given the size of our operation and its newness compared to other, more established programmes). 

Final Thoughts

In closing, it goes without saying that the work of an outreach ‘professional’ is nothing if not diverse. On any given day I might be organising materials for a primary school; arranging mentoring for a secondary teacher to offer a Classics Club; organising further education programmes; gathering data on pupil numbers and retention; travelling 200 miles to help a school host a launch event for Classical Studies; participating in committees on the direction of Classics teaching; or liaising with representatives of local government regarding their educational priorities. There is often no established practice (and sometimes not even any precedent) for you to follow, so a willingness to think laterally around a problem is essential. This kind of variety is something that, at least to me, is an appeal of the job. 

There are drawbacks to working as an outreach officer just now too, though. Firstly is that, outside one or two university departments, there are simply no steady jobs that are supported and protected by an institution. My own position with CAS is ultimately as a freelancer, reliant on rolling funding from Classics for All, subject to satisfactory job performance and school recruitment. I have to make peace with the fact that the money may one day dry up. If you loathe the idea of doing your own taxes, then you may also have pause for thought… 

Another potential drawback concerns distance from frontline teaching. It has been my experience that the majority of classicists engaged in outreach work are themselves passionate about teaching. When a large portion of the outreach job is concerned more with advocacy work, administration and ultimately salesmanship, however, this can prove a source of frustration at times, stemming from a feeling of detachment from the subject which inspires you to want to share it in the first place!

Beyond the practical and the monetary, it is a fact that outreach work, especially in areas of particular need, can be quite an isolating experience, since you are having to build up your own community around you. This is especially true currently in Scotland since, even with the continual support of colleagues down south, there is only so much value and information that I may extract from collaboration with them. Everything they produce or pilot must be translated, at some point, to fit the Scottish curriculum and vice versa. 

I do not include these points to deter people from pursuing outreach work, but so that they can come to more informed decisions about how much time and energy they want to devote to it. Returning to the positive, I believe that outreach has been some of the most rewarding work that I have done as a classicist. One of the most important things to me about my professional work is that it ‘makes a difference’ in some way. Whether it is changing the way someone thinks about something through my research, helping students understand complex sources via my teaching or bringing the subject anew to diverse communities through my outreach, this value is a primary driver in my professional life. 

The most enjoyable aspect of my outreach work here is that the value I bring via my efforts is tangible. Pupils are offered the opportunity to study subjects that they would never have been exposed to previously, teachers are trained and equipped with skills and subject matter which changes the curricular provision of their school. It is a long road which demands patience and persistence, but it is no understatement to say that we are slowly changing the educational landscape in Scotland for the better by enriching it with a subject once common but now lost, and democratising access for a new generation of young learners.

Dr. Alex Imrie is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh with a special interest on the Roman emperor Caracalla, the process of refashioning the Severan dynasty that occurred during his reign, and the power relationship between the emperor and his elites on the eve of the military crisis of the third century. He is also interested in: ancient historiography, especially Cassius Dio’s Roman History; Roman propaganda; Greek culture under Rome; civil warfare and conflicts during the Principate; and Roman imperial numismatics.

FINDING MY VOICE AND HELPING OTHERS FIND THEIRS

Collection: University of Edinburgh; Persons: N/A; Event: N/A; Place: McEwan Hall; Edinburgh; Scotland; UK; Category: University Buildings; Description: Details from the ceiling spaceof the McEwan Hall during the 2016 refurbishment of the building.

By Dr. Alex Imrie

My route into Classics is one that has been deemed ‘non-traditional’ by some. I never had the chance to try ancient languages or Classical Studies at school; and beyond a unit on the Romans in Primary 5 and a couple weeks on the Egyptians in secondary school, I didn’t get to study any ancient history either. My interest in antiquity was nevertheless present from an early age, spurred by two distinct inspirations: watching films like Jason and the Argonauts and Spartacus with my parents, and the fact that my grandfather became a porter with the National Museum of Scotland in my hometown of Edinburgh in the years before his death. I spent nearly every weekend of my early years in the museum, finding out about some object or another.

Despite this interest, I didn’t know about the existence of Classics as a distinct discipline until I reached university. I had arrived as a student enrolled in French (the subject I’d been best at in school) although, beyond a vague notion of becoming a translator, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to get out of my university experience. I was the first in my working-class family to stay on at school and thus I had no frame of reference regarding what to expect in higher education.

I remember the moment which set me on the path to becoming a professional classicist vividly, when I chose Ancient History as an elective course in my first year. Looking back, I am relieved that I went with my instinct and subject passion rather than doing what so many first-gen and marginalised students do, which is to try to craft a degree on what they are told is ‘useful’. Within the space of a year, I’d changed my Honours specialisation to Ancient History and never looked back, graduating in my new degree subject in 2007.

By the time I’d graduated, I knew categorically that this was the discipline in which I wanted a career. There followed a couple years working in retail (selling kilts, no less!) to support my wife through the final year of her medical degree and to raise money for me to commence postgraduate study. I started a Masters by Research programme in 2009, since I was aware already that I wanted to apply for a doctorate, but was terrified at the prospect of writing to such a volume. The MScR programme I undertook was fantastic for proving to myself that I did have ideas and that I could write to scale, but it also gave me the flexibility to start a steep learning curve with the ancient languages.

After completing the Masters, I was lucky enough to secure funding to support my moving on to the PhD immediately. The years of my doctorate were some of the most challenging and yet rewarding that I have ever experienced. If I lacked a frame of reference for my undergraduate degree, it’s fair to say that for a sizeable portion of the PhD I felt similarly out of place: impostor syndrome, which has stalked me for many years, was at its most brutal during this period. With the love and support of friends, family, excellent colleagues and stalwart advisors, however, I endured. Graduating in my doctoral robes remains one of the proudest moments of my life, showing that a boy who had grown up watching Spartacus and playing Rome: Total War could have a voice in a discipline that seems to many as being designed to be impenetrable to those with a just such a background as mine (and many others even more so).

It is in part that realisation which has informed much of my work and professional effort since graduating in 2015. In my research, I endeavour to use language in as simple a way as I can, so that my work is accessible to people regardless of how long they have been submerged in classical scholarship. It pains me to see interested people turned off by writing that is unnecessarily complex or wilfully pretentious. My research concerns the history of the Severan Dynasty: one of the most dysfunctional families to ever occupy the Roman imperial throne (and that is saying something!) If I cannot render this period exciting and accessible to anyone who might want to know about it, then I’m failing as an academic.

I am similarly motivated when it comes to teaching. I was fortunate enough to be taught by several lecturers who are excellent at their craft, and so I aspire to engender the same level of engagement I felt as a student in their classes. Classics is a subject which should inspire and challenge in equal measure. It is full of enthralling stories but would probably have been utterly horrendous to have lived through for many. The ancient world is simultaneously familiar and completely alien on a human level. The discipline is valuable in that it offers (among other things) a lens and filter to discuss subjects and issues which have real contemporary relevance, and yet the discipline itself is plagued by its own historical inequities and more recent misappropriations, both of which require to be challenged openly and robustly. For these reasons and more, the subject is a privilege to teach and a responsibility I take very seriously.

Dovetailing some of these themes together, some of my most important work over the last three years has been in the field of Classics outreach. In Scotland, Classics in schools imploded in the 1980s, and was at real risk of disappearing from the curricular map altogether, were it not for the stubborn ingenuity of teachers keeping the subject alive in a handful of state centres. In late 2017, I took up the position of National Outreach Co-ordinator with the Classical Association of Scotland, in partnership with the charity Classics for All. Since then, we have successfully brought Latin or Classical Studies to around 50 schools nationwide, with others preparing themselves to join our growing network. With each passing month, we are proving that there is an appetite out there for the ancient world, be it spurred by Percy Jackson and Horrible Histories, or simply by the enduring draw of subjects like classical mythology.

We have also been active with initiatives designed to render the ancient past accessible to as wide an audience as possible: running free online sessions through the COVID lockdown period, and offering friendly and accessible summer language programmes designed to fit in with work, childcare and other life responsibilities. I want our global Classics community to be more than simply those who win the crapshoot of securing permanent positions in self-styled ‘elite’ universities.

For me, this is something of a mission, bringing my personal and professional journeys within Classics almost full circle: offering young learners at primary and secondary levels an opportunity to engage with the subject I was denied the chance to experience as a child, in the hope of enthusing a new generation of classicists in Scotland who don’t feel ‘other’ or out of place if they decide that they want to pursue the subject further. We are still at the start of a very long road if we are to see Classics become a legitimate subject option for the majority of Scotland’s pupils but, in spite of the difficulties and issues we face, I remain dedicated to the cause and remind myself that Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all…