by Evelien Bracke
On the 26th November, WalesOnline featured the headline ‘Could Latin be set for a comeback in Welsh classrooms?’ In spite of the question mark, that the media picked up on all the Classics-related events that are going on is great news.
Since the re-launch of the South West Wales branch of the Classical Association in October 2011, we have worked ceaselessly – together with Swansea University and local schools – to broaden access to Classics in an area where it has been in steep decline since the 1980s. Nationally, only 11% of Welsh secondaries and 0.8% of primaries offer Latin – compare that with 25% and 2% respectively in England. Of Welsh secondaries, 64% of those offering Latin are independent schools, compared with 48% in England. The majority of secondaries only offer Latin as an extra-curricular subject, usually for More Able and Talented pupils, and few schools encourage students to work towards an exam. Engagement with and access to Latin in Wales is thus restricted to say the least. I have no official figures for the provision of Classical cultures in Wales, but they are similar to those for Latin.
In South Wales, we are starting to reach people, though figures are still limited: since 2011, we have reached approximately 2,500 people directly through all our outreach activities (but as comments below demonstrate, more indirectly). Feedback is always great and people keep coming back, which suggests we’re successful in what we offer. We do have a traditional events programme like other CA branches, but since access to Classics is so limited, our focus lies mainly on more practical community engagement.
Together with Swansea University, we run annual projects in schools whereby university students teach Latin, Greek, or the Romans in Year 3/4. Through pupils’ attainment, entire families are engaging with the ancient world and languages, and barriers to Classics are thus broken at a wider level than merely for pupils.
I talk about Latin to my friends/family. I speak it and love it! I will never ever forget you and your Latin sessions. They mean everything to me.
I found it exciting to learn about how life used to be back then. I also liked making stuff out of clay like the Romans.
I tell my mum, brother, cousins and dad what I’ve learnt. I tell them that we make lovely things and do songs, go to past Roman times and play games. (Thank you for the best time ever)! Now my mum wants to learn Latin!
Last year, we organised the first ever Classics schools’ competition on the theme of ‘Crafting the Ancient World’, as well as a Latin and Greek translation competition. Response was quite surprising, and we had more than 150 entries. You can read about the winners on our website. Thanks to CA support, we are now hosting the second competition on the theme of ‘Heroes in the Ancient World’. The deadline is 1 July, but we have already had our first entries.
At school level, local engagement is thus clearly increasing. In order to widen access for adults as well, we organised the first Swansea Summer School in Ancient Languages in 2015, which offered Latin, Greek, and Hieroglyphs. It was lovely to meet new people and catch up with familiar faces (you can read a report here) and online registration for the second Summer School is already open.
Coming up ….
Our outreach programme is still developing. We were delighted to receive a British Academy Schools’ Language Award, which has enabled us to offer free Latin classes at three South West Wales secondary schools from January 2016, for two school years (registration is still open).
We are also starting a large Year 3/4 programme with local libraries and museums in September 2016, linking ancient Greek and Welsh heritage, for all Swansea pupils. The Romans are easier to promote because of their physical links with Wales – Greek heritage is less visible, which is why we want to target that more, particularly since young children love Greek myth and invariably become enchanted with the Greek alphabet when introduced to it.
Classics in Wales
Now that our outreach programme has become more established at a local level, we have also started collaborating with others on a national level. In order to promote and support engagement with Classics in all of Wales, we set up the Cymru Wales Classics Hub (CWCH). Cwch is Welsh for ‘boat’ and it refers to the transfer of knowledge, the start of a journey, and of course hints at the Argo as mythological prototype of a ship. CWCH brings teachers together, and just from talking to each other, schools have already set up joint school trips and secondaries are now starting to offer Latin to local primaries, taught by their sixth-form students. Our work is mainly confined to South and Mid Wales, however, and we have a long journey ahead to reach all of Wales. Our first annual conference takes place on the 6th February 2016, and everyone is welcome to attend (registration is open online).
Classics outreach in Wales is not straightforward, since – alongside the typical prejudices concerning elitism and uselessness – the political emphasis on Welsh further complicates matters. Persuading schools that Welsh and Classics are not mutually exclusive is a tough task, and engagement with schools and museums often depends on passion for the subject by one individual. The educational climate in Wales is changing, however, and with a new languages policy for Wales (Global Futures), access to ancient languages might improve along with that to modern foreign languages. More news on that, hopefully, in the new year!
So … a ‘comeback’ for Classics in Wales? I doubt we will ever again reach the point where, as in the past, Latin was compulsory at secondary school level, but that’s not the point – nor do we even have to reach tipping point. What matters is that Classics becomes accessible to Welsh communities, so that people can experience how it adds value and meaning to their lives in a relevant way, namely by connecting with their own specific social, cultural, and political contexts.
Dr Evelien Bracke is a Lecturer in Classics and also Employability and School Liaison Officer in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Swansea. She is also Chair of the South West Wales branch of the Classical Association and Co-ordinator for Wales of the Iris Project’s Literacy through Latin project.