Classics students and academics usually fill the Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies in central Oxford, but on Saturday mornings the centre welcomes a younger generation in to its classrooms. A group of 13-14 year-olds from around Oxfordshire and further afield comes to the centre every week for the opportunity to learn Latin.

The OXLAT scheme, which is generously supported by the Stonehouse Educational Foundation and the University's van Houten fund, aims to prepare these 30 pupils to sit their Latin GCSE in 2017. The children attend state schools in Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire that are unable to offer Latin in their curriculum.

‘It’s a long way to come, but it’s really fun to learn the language,’ says Tilly, 14, from Marlow. Learning Latin has had an impact on her broader school performance. ‘I can relate what we learn in Latin to French and Spanish,’ says Tilly. ‘Without this scheme I might have struggled more with those languages – and I would’ve had a very boring Saturday!’

A fun environment to do challenging work

Latin is indeed a useful tool for learning other languages. ‘When I started studying Latin, I really started thinking critically about how a language works, and how the different parts of it interact,’ explains Emma Searle, the coordinator of the OXLAT scheme and also a DPhil student in Ancient History at Oxford. ‘Learning Latin is not just a route into doing a Classics degree. It will underpin your confidence with English and foreign languages.’

The scheme also provides a space where young people can challenge themselves. ‘It is an opportunity for stretching children, and putting them in a smaller class of like-minded people where they can actually be relaxed,’ says Hannah Murray, one of the teachers. ‘They are working hard and having fun in a positive environment where it’s cool to do challenging work,’ she adds.

The pupils do really enjoy themselves. ‘I like everything about Latin,’ says Yoshi, 13, from Woodstock. ‘It’s really cool to learn a dead language, and to see how people lived at that time as well.’ The initiative has been so successful that the Stonehouse Educational Foundation has just pledged to support a further cohort of state school pupils to take their Latin GCSE in 2018.

Learning Latin shouldn’t be a luxury

Even though there has been an increase in the provision of Latin in state schools in the UK, there are still many schools that cannot offer it. The OXLAT scheme, which is part of the Faculty of Classics Outreach Programme, aims to plug that gap in Oxford’s local community.

‘We are very happy to support local schools that aren’t able to offer Latin,’ says Professor Christopher Pelling, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, who is co-operating with the Cambridge Schools Classics Project in leading a government initiative to encourage Latin in state schools.

The Faculty of Classics is also involved in two other initiatives aimed at making Latin accessible to pupils and the wider community: the Literacy through Latin scheme, and the East Oxford Community Classics Centre, both run by the Classics charity The Iris Project. ‘We think this is an area where universities and local communities can really work together, and it is absolutely right that Oxford should be in the forefront of these initiatives,’ says Professor Pelling.

Emma is passionate about this aim of making Latin available in state schools. ‘I went to a state school where I was very fortunate to be offered Ancient History and Archaeology,’ she says. It was thanks to this experience at school that she felt confident to apply to study Classics at Oxford. ‘But, coming from a working class background, I don’t like the idea that it is a luxury to be interested in Latin. If the subject is not something students are introduced to as a matter of course, it denies them an option for the future, an outlook on life that they might be interested in.’

The commitment of these 30 pupils shows they are making the most out of this opportunity to explore the world of classics and ancient history. ‘The fact that they are 13, are giving up their Saturday morning, and are doing at least 45 minutes of homework every week means that they obviously feel they are getting something out of it,’ adds Hannah.

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