Taking the Class out of Classics; Putting the Classics Back into Classrooms*

We now have barely a year until we welcome the world to London for the Olympic and Paralympic Games and it is a testimony to the incredible speed of preparations that we have virtually finished the construction of the athletes' village. In fact we're even test marketing them 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, that like all truly megalomaniacal politicians I played a part in designing it.

It was three years ago that they brought me the architects' drawings and I sat there feeling like Mussolini looking at the plans for EUR, or Napoleon III looking at the sketches of Haussmann, or Pericles himself beholding the plans to redevelop the Acropolis. I could see it was going to be a fantastic place to live. The Westfield shopping centre of course, the Stratford railway hub, the Orbit 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, where was the slightest 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 said.

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 he 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 - we can offer to house the Greek team there during the Olympic and Paralympic 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. That heroic ratio, a mortal fight of few against many, is repeated today in the struggle by classicists to protect the lamp of Greek and Roman language and civilisation from the barbaric forces that would let that flame go out - and in some cases even snuff it out.

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, which offer extracurricular tuition, and in recent years classicists have had some remarkable successes.

Classics for All has raised 300,000 this year alone to fund projects to get classics into schools. Barbara Bell's primary Latin course Minimus has now 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 Ancient History 'A' level and the new English Baccalaureate ranks Latin , Greek and ancient history with other mainstream subjects.

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 has once again cut places for potential classics teachers - down to twelve at Cambridge and twelve at Kings - 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 it 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, but 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 simply 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 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 a way to approach problems and ideas that will serve them well for the future. And if it's good enough for Chris and Gwyneth's children, why not other kids?

So come on, get on board, yes, get on board the omnibus.

Boris Johnson
Mayor of London

*Editor Note: Ann Sindall, Executive Assistant to the Mayor, wrote in reply to my request for the Mayor's comments on the teaching of Latin in today's schools: "He was delighted to hear of your enthusiasm for the subject. Unfortunately, owing to other Mayoral engagements and commitments he doesn't have enough free time to write anything new for your website. In June of 2011 he gave a lecture at Kings College London about the teaching of Classics. The speech was reproduced in an article in the Times Literary Supplement. I'm sure he would be happy to give permission for you to use it on your website."

Here is the reply to my second e-mail: "The Mayor is delighted to give his permission. Here is the edited version of the speech given on 30th June 2011 and a link to the King College site: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/kingsanswers/news/records/BorisJohnsonEducationLecture.aspx

Best wishes,
Ann Sindall
Executive Assistant to the Mayor

My/our thanks to Mr. Johnson for his permission to reproduce the above edited version of his speech.

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