Studying ancient civilisations develops 21st-century skills

Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson is engaging with policy makers to share her research findings, which include that studying Classics can help students develop vital skills for education, life, and work in the 21st Century.

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(Credit: Arlene Holmes-Henderson)

Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson opted for classics at school and university because she was fascinated by the ancient world, both its languages and cultures. Her later experience as a schoolteacher deepened her understanding of the skills developed through classical study – and her realisation that Classics education research had a valuable contribution to make to curriculum policy development.

Her subsequent doctorate explored what classical rhetoric can offer 21st-century learners. ‘Young people are bombarded with so much information,’ she explains. ‘Studying rhetoric helps them understand how language can be used to manipulate people’s emotions. It makes them critical consumers of speech and text and helps them to become articulate speakers and active listeners themselves.’

Holmes-Henderson has studied at Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge and she came to Oxford as a postdoctoral fellow in 2014, passionate about sharing both her professional experience in the classroom and her expert knowledge as a researcher with those setting the curriculum. Exploring routes to engaging with policy makers, she became aware of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Oracy, which seemed like a good starting point.

Holmes-Henderson says: ‘According to the Confederation of British Industry, today’s graduates lack vital communication skills, particularly in speaking and listening. Strong oral skills are also key to good outcomes for school pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Classical rhetoric is a great way to develop such skills, so I really felt I had something to contribute to the APPG.’

Holmes-Henderson submitted written evidence to the APPG’s National Speak for Change Inquiry on Oracy and was subsequently invited to give oral evidence as an expert witness. She then collaborated with the APPG on the final report, helping to fill evidence gaps and working with group members to draft recommendations for policy and practice.

The report, launched in April 2021, concluded that oracy is a vital skill for students but is not currently well-supported in all schools. It called for more focus on oracy across the whole curriculum, rather than it being seen as the preserve of ‘English’ or ‘Literacy’, and for funding to facilitate training for all school staff.

The report has been well received by MPs, many of whom are keen to promote its recommendations in schools across their constituencies. Addressing the attainment gap (widened by COVID) between pupils from different socioeconomic groups through catch-up programmes offers an excellent opportunity to boost the teaching of oracy. Many charities, multi-academy trusts and local authorities are currently planning such programmes. 

Holmes-Henderson is now using her experience to help support the development of a new APPG in Political Literacy. She is also sharing her research on the teaching of ancient and modern languages with policy makers at the Department of Education as a TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellow, via a Research and Public Policy Partnership. She is using her research findings from the Classics in Communities project to inform curriculum policy conversations in her capacity as an advisor to government.

‘This work really is the fulfilment of a dream,’ she says. ‘When I was in the classroom, I wanted the authors of curriculum documents to have Classical subjects on their radar. For a long time, it felt as though we were marginalised or non-existent in policy. The work I’m doing now with policy makers allows me to bring Classics into the picture.’

‘When interviewed, learners say that studying classical languages and civilisations helps them to develop analytical and critical skills. But just as importantly, they’re different and fascinating. Students get deeply absorbed and are eager to engage and learn – good news for teachers, pupils, employers and the community!’

Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson is a Senior Research Fellow in Classics Education at the University of Oxford. She is a TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellow and an OPEN Policy Leader. She is the Outreach Officer of the Classical Association, the national subject association which supports the teaching and learning of Classics in schools.

Contact Arlene at [email protected]; follow her on Twitter: @drarlenehh


  • Strategic Priorities Fund Research England
  • TORCH Centre for the Humanities
  • Oxford Policy Engagement Network
  • HM Government Policy Profession