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Cambridge professor Mary Beard backs schools scheme to make Latin less elitist

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Professor Dame Mary Beard has backed plans to offer Latin lessons to thousands of state school pupils in a bid to make the language less “elitist”.

The broadcaster and historian - Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge - supported proposals unveiled by education secretary Gavin Williamson who said the £4million Latin Excellence Programme would ensure the subject was not “for the privileged few”.

Professor Dame Mary Beard. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA (49824176)
Professor Dame Mary Beard. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA (49824176)

The initiative will be led by a centre of excellence working with up to 40 state schools in England to develop training resources and lesson materials for teaching Latin to students aged 11 to 16.

The Department for Education (DfE) said the programme will support schools for an initial four years, from 2022 to 2026, before being “evaluated for future years”.

In a video shared on Twitter by the department, Dame Mary, a fellow of Newnham College, expressed support for the scheme that will also provide students with the opportunity to visit Roman heritage sites.

She said: “For me, Latin’s exciting, it’s challenging, it introduces children to a whole range of worlds and literatures that are different from their own. So it’s mind-expanding and fun. I think that Latin in some ways still struggles with the view that it’s really just for posh white boys and nothing could be further from the truth.”

She added: “I think the more that we spread the excitement of learning Latin, the better for everybody and the better for Latin.

“This scheme is going to be really effective if it can actually share the pleasures and the challenges and sometimes the difficulties of learning Latin with a much wider group of people.”

Education secretary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA (49824187)
Education secretary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA (49824187)

Mr Williamson said: “We know Latin has a reputation as an elitist subject which is only reserved for the privileged few. But the subject can bring so many benefits to young people, so I want to put an end to that divide.

“There should be no difference in what pupils learn at state schools and independent schools, which is why we have a relentless focus on raising school standards and ensuring all pupils study a broad, ambitious curriculum.

“Latin can help pupils with learning modern foreign languages, and bring broader benefits to other subjects, including maths and English.”

According to a Language Trends 2020 survey from the British Council, Latin is taught at key stage 3 level (ages 11 to 14) in just 2.7 per cent of state schools compared with 49 per cent of independent schools.

The DfE said an expert group will be appointed to work with schools “providing the best Latin teaching in the country” and develop resources to roll out in disadvantaged areas with low uptake of the subject at GCSE, with an aim to boost entries.

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