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Now is the time to dust off your Latin and Ancient Greek and help keep classics from becoming history

Comment | Published in TES Newspaper on 8 July, 2011 | By: Boris Johnson

We now have barely a year until we welcome the world to London for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and it is testimony to the incredible speed of preparations that we have virtually finished the construction of the athletes' village. In fact, we are even test-marketing it as new homes for London families to move into as soon as the park reopens in 2013.

One quadrangle of housing is particularly exciting because, I am proud to say, like all truly megalomaniacal politicians I played a part in designing it.

It was three years ago that they brought me the architects' drawings. I felt like Napoleon III looking at Haussmann's sketches, or Pericles himself beholding the plans to redevelop the Acropolis. I could see it was going to be a fantastic place to live. Nearby is the Westfield shopping centre, the Stratford railway hub, and Anish Kapoor's Orbit tower sprouting like some mutant red trombone.

And yet, as I looked at the drawings I couldn't help feeling that something was missing. Where was that sense of history, the indication that this village was the direct descendant of the sacred groves of Ancient Greece? Where was the Olympic spirit?

I tried to explain my feelings to the great David Higgins, then chief executive of the ODA and a brilliant mind. He said, you want Greek sculptures on the flats in the village? I do, I said. Whereabouts, he asked. How about on the walls, I said. Anything in particular, he asked.

I reflected - the Discobolos of Myron or the Farnese Heracles? They wouldn't go on a wall. I realised, it had to be the Parthenon. Get me Phidias, Ictinus, Callicrates. Let's have the metopes or the frieze. No worries, said David Higgins. And to my amazement, he went away and found the right frieze - frieze a jolly good fellow!

So, if you look up at our Olympic village you will see the horsemen of the Panathenaic frieze. It thrills me to see them up there because we can offer to house the Greek team there during the Games. But more so because those horsemen remind us of the greatest epoch of the civilisation that made our own and how nearly that Athenian civilisation was conquered.

There are 192 horsemen, chariot passengers, grooms and marshalls on the Panathenaic frieze - the exact number of the Athenian Hoplite dead at the Battle of Marathon, when Athenians under Miltiades saw off the barbarian hordes of the Persians, killing at least 6,400 of them.

The TES revealed last month that Latin was now taught in more comprehensives than independent and grammar schools, because of the work of charities like the Iris Project that offer extracurricular tuition. In recent years classicists have had some remarkable successes. Classics for All has raised £300,000 this year to help get classics into schools. Barbara Bell's primary Latin course Minimus has sold 125,000 copies.

The Iris Project has set up Latin teaching in 40 primary schools in boroughs across London, including Hackney, Brent and Tower Hamlets. The Cambridge School Classics Project has almost doubled its take-up from 600 schools to 1,115. We have saved the A-level in ancient history, and the new English Baccalaureate ranks Latin, Greek and ancient history with other mainstream subjects.

This is not a bad record for supporters of a subject that is meant to be dying - and with scarcely a penny of taxpayers' money. But these hardy and hunted classical guerrillas, Odyssean in their cunning and tenacity, must step up the fight because we have not won - far from it. We still have 70 classics teachers retiring every year and just 30 being trained to replace them. The Training and Development Agency for Schools has once again cut places for potential classics teachers, meaning more schools in the maintained sector must use non-specialist teachers to try to satisfy demand.

It has been said that very few parents are pushing for the subject and few pupils want to study it, but how to accurately judge when so little is still taught in the maintained sector: 75 per cent of state schools offer no classical education at all, but 70 per cent of the fee-paying sector does.

This is not a debate about the classics versus design, technology, or indeed any other subject. But I believe fervently that a training in classics is one of the best, if not the best, that a young mind can have. It is a universal spanner for so many other languages, and it also gives young people access not just to London's Roman history, but to an understanding of world history, from our ideas about democracy to the Arab Spring.

It can equip a young mind to run the greatest city on earth, thanks to a knowledge of a civilisation that was in so many ways like our own and yet so very different. It is not right that a great degree course, great careers and the untold riches of the classical world should be effectively restricted to a small minority of kids from fee-paying schools.

That's why we are appealing to all who have an interest - those who still dimly remember their Latin tolling like the bell of some sea-drowned church - to get involved in a new scheme we are bringing in from the next academic year. As part of our volunteering programme Team London, we want them to consider helping to teach Latin and Ancient Greek to young people across the capital.

The aim is to reach 2,500 kids in the first year, opening them up not just to the ancient world, but to a way of approaching problems and ideas that will serve them well for the future. And if it's good enough for the children of Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow, why not other kids? So come on, get on board. Yes, get on board the omnibus.

Boris Johnson is mayor of London.

www.london.gov.uk/teamlondon.


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Comment (1)

  • Hi Boris,
    If Classical subjects are so important- Why isn't Classical Civ GCSE counted in the ebacc?! I work in an inner city school- promoting the study of Classical history & literature but why would pupils choose it if it's not deemed as important as 'normal' History GCSE?! It's a shame as we would be studying The Odyssey that you referenced!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    20:53
    12 July, 2011

    jenjames77

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