Oxford Classics professors go online in lockdown with classes for schools about the ancient world

31 March 2021

More than 500 school pupils take part in Oxford’s ‘Classical Conversations’
Research shows ‘wealth or luck’ determines access to Classics in UK
Just 68 state schools offer Latin (2%) and eight offer Greek A levels

Oxford’s Faculty of Classics has seized this year’s opportunity of distance learning to reach out to schools, with professors of ancient subjects going into online classrooms to talk to pupils about everything from who wore togas to the poet Juvenal. Meanwhile, recent research from Oxford and Cambridge shows classical subjects are simply not available in the overwhelming majority of state-maintained schools.

The brainchild of the Head of Classics, Dr Neil McLynn and the Research Fellow in Classics Education, Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson, ‘Classical Conversations’ are part of a multi-point push to enrich learning and boost interest in studying classical subjects. Read about the Classical Conversations here.

New research co-authored by Dr Holmes-Henderson, shows that, across the country, access to Classics in schools relies on ‘wealth or luck’. Large geographical areas offer no access to classical subjects in state-maintained schools, and 97% of students taking Classical Greek and 88% taking Latin come from independent or selective schools. Meanwhile, the subjects are simply not on offer in the overwhelming majority of state-maintained schools.

Nevertheless, schools have reacted with considerable enthusiasm to the Oxford initiative, with more than 30 conversations taking place across the country, reaching upwards of 500 pupils, and teachers report renewed interest in Classics at all levels.

The Oxford Classics outreach programme aims to offer a bridge in access to classical subjects. For the last 20 years, Oxford’s undergraduate course has had a pathway for students who have not previously taken any classical subjects. And, on Monday [28 March] this week, Oxford and Cambridge played host to a Classics virtual open day, which attracted 400 attendees from some 150 schools. Meanwhile, Oxford's UNIQ Classics summer schools for year 12 students are already full for this year.

According to Dr McLynn, as part of Classical Conversations, the professors joined in many quick-fire conversations with pupils who had no background in Classics as well as some who were studying ancient cultures and texts.

But in the first study to analyse examination entry data so precisely, Dr Holmes-Henderson reports that A level Latin is found in just 2% of state-maintained schools (68 schools), and Greek is virtually absent from the State sector – particularly outside London and the South East and selective schools.

The study also finds a ‘perverse failure’ of Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in sixth form colleges, which fail to turn evident enthusiasm for the subjects into students taking degrees in classical subjects at university. Meanwhile, according to the research, in the North of England, just 10 A level centres offer Latin – two are non-selective. In the whole of England, only eight state maintained schools offer A level Greek, of which three are non-selective. The report concludes, ‘It is almost a miracle that a student is able to study A level Greek in a state-maintained school in England.’

Dr Holmes-Henderson maintains, ‘Our study highlights the fragility of Classics in English schools. It will take considerable and collective efforts from all corners of the classics community to address the access issues which the discipline faces. Positive steps have been made, but there is a long way to go.’

There is more opportunity to study Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in the state-maintained sector, with more than 50% of A level students coming from non-selective state schools. The subjects are being studied across the country, often in non-selective sixth form colleges. The authors write, ‘A large number of centres, more accessible to all students, and widely geographically dispersed, should provide a pathway to further study of classical subjects at university.’

But, on analysing the data, they find, ‘Although sixth from colleges have larger, more financially-viable entry cohorts for both A level Classical Civilisation and A level Ancient History, students find it very challenging to attain the highest grades.... The A Level exam in these subjects does not seem to be providing a successful launch-pad for students, in the numbers one would expect, for the universities for which the courses themselves have been designed.’

Notes for Editors

For more information or interviews, please contact news.admin@ox.ac.uk

  1. Dr Holmes-Henderson is working with the Department of Education: see here.
  2. For more information about ‘UNIQ’ residential summer schools aimed at year 12 pupils from state schools, see here.
  3. A creative writing competition is currently open to applicants from 14-18, with a winning prize of £250. See Competition