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Working towards fairer access to Classical subjects in schools: the Advocating Classics Education (ACE) project

By Dr Peter Swallow and Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson

Access to the study of Classical subjects in schools relies on ‘wealth or luck’ (Hunt and Holmes-Henderson, 2021). The availability of Latin, Greek, Ancient History or Classical Civilisation (the four subjects available as qualifications in English schools) at GCSE or A Level invariably depends on what kind of school you go to, and where you live. 8% of independent schools presented candidates for Latin A Level in 2019; only 2% of state schools did. 9% of independent schools offered Classical Civilisation A Level; just over 5% of non-selective state schools did. Only 0.2% of state schools offered A Level Greek, compared to almost 4% of independent schools. Ancient History shows more equity but still has a tiny market share; 1.3% of state schools entered candidates, and 0.9% of independent schools. In Scotland, the situation is no better. The Classical Association of Scotland found that in 2017, only 11 state schools were offering Latin, and only 18 were offering Classical Studies (the equivalent to Classical Civilisation). Access to Classical subjects in state-maintained schools in Wales and Northern Ireland is similarly limited (data collection in process).

The regional picture in England is stark:

This graph shows the unequal regional distribution of schools offering A Level Classical Civilisation in England; provision is concentrated overwhelmingly around the South of England and London, while access in the East Midlands and the North is particularly poor. The simple fact is that you are much more likely to be able to study Classical Civilisation if you live in the South. You can read more about A Level ‘Classics poverty’ in a report for CUCD here.

That’s why the Advocating Classics Education (ACE) project was established. Led by Prof Edith Hall and Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson, the project’s mission is to expand access to Classical subjects (focussing on Classical Civilisation and Ancient History) in state schools across the UK. Since its launch in 2017, we have engaged with more than 200 schools to inspire young people and support ongoing, or nascent, Classics provision. Visits have continued virtually during the pandemic. One of the main barriers to expanding provision is the limited number of Classics/Ancient History teacher training places available. We sought to fill this gap, and with funding from King’s College London’s Widening Participation Fund, the Roman Society and the Hellenic Society, we ran a 5 day summer school in 2019, which brought together teachers from schools across England for intensive training. There was a training session devoted to every single component on the OCR GCSE, AS Level and A Level Classical Civilisation specifications, led by academics and supported by a specialist in Classics education pedagogy. Many of these sessions are available to view on our website. And we’ve partnered with 16 universities in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Ireland to support the local provision of public events, outreach and training days. You can explore ACE’s impact with this handy interactive map.

Our work with schools has made a measurable difference. Stephen Dobson started his teaching career as a Physics teacher, but was inspired to introduce Classical Civilisation and Latin at his state school, Redborne Upper School, near Milton Keynes. ACE has supported him to ‘upskill’ and to recruit students, and he now teaches around 70 students a year. Stephen is also now completing a part-time MA in Classical Studies at the Open University as the recipient of a teacher studentship from the A.G. Leventis Foundation. At independent Streatham and Clapham High School, Assistant Head Andrew Christie has been inspired by ACE to offer 34 students from five local state schools the opportunity to study Classical Civilisation GCSE via an independent-state school partnership.

We have been producing research on both the history of Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in British classrooms, and on the currency, value and status of these subjects in the contemporary curriculum. Forthcoming is our book Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in British Secondary Education with Liverpool University Press, by Arlene Holmes-Henderson, Edith Hall and James Corke-Webster, which will provide a concise analytical and descriptive overview of qualifications in Classical Civilisation and Ancient History, enriched by testimonies from ACE project partners and supporters. The book is aimed at politicians, journalists, policy-makers, educationalists and academics, as well as teachers, parents and secondary school pupils. 

We know that young people in the North of England and in the East of England experience more Classics poverty than those in London and the South East. For this reason, we are redoubling our efforts in this next phase, with AHRC Follow-on Funding, on collaborations in Liverpool and Cambridge to enhance access to the study of the ancient world for people of all ages in these communities. We are working with researchers, museum curators, outreach co-ordinators and exams professionals to build links between the Liverpool World Museum, the Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology, OCR and schools. We will be producing new teaching and learning resources for the A Level Classical Civilisation Greek Theatre component, including entirely open-source translations of the plays included on the syllabus. We will create British Museum gallery guides for students and teachers to support access to museum collections. And we are collaborating on a project which uses Classical bodies to explore the complex issues of body image with teenage audiences. Our aim is to increase access to the ancient world for geographically and socio-economically diverse communities.

Many famous advocates of a Classical education have spoken about the benefits of studying the ancient world while deploring the perception that it is an elitist discipline. Stephen Fry has opined about ‘how many great untried Hellenists and Latinists, how many potentially joyful lovers of the Classics have lived and died without ever having been exposed to Ancient Greece and Rome’. One of our patrons, the comedian and author Natalie Haynes, has called for a democratisation of the subject: ‘Classics can be, and has been, dismissed as being pale, male and stale … [but] it belongs to all of us. You’re depriving all of us of our collective cultural history if we don’t get to study this.’ The Advocating Classics Education has turned words into action. We know that the study of the ancient world in schools is fragile, patchy or non-existent. There are very few schools where it is thriving. Our aim is to enable all learners to have access to the study of the ancient Mediterranean world (broadly defined): Greece, Italy and their Near Eastern, Indian and North African neighbours), if that is their choice. It should not depend on school type or location. As readers will see from our website, we have accomplished a great deal since 2017 but there is ever-more to do.

You can find out more about our community and the work we are doing to on our blog, or you can join the teachers and supporters in our Facebook group. We’re also on Twitter. Our videos page provides a range of voices from the project, including school-based learners speaking passionately about what it has meant to them to study Classical subjects. Prof Edith Hall’s A People’s Classics YouTube channel is making a career’s worth of talks and lectures freely available, to everyone. And you can watch the award-winning short documentary we have made about Advocating Classics Education here.

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