Sometimes you have to step off the treadmill to reflect on what is wrong with the system. After 21 years of preparing cohorts of students for Latin at GCSE level, it has taken me a year or so off the hamster wheel to reflect upon what is wrong with it and how the examination at GCSE level is fundamentally flawed.
To understand how the Latin GCSE fails our students, we first of all need to reflect upon what the purpose is of studying Latin – without this, the decisions made by the exam boards will seem even more incomprehensible than they actually are. First and foremost, forgetting any wild claims to promote excellence, increase vocabulary or whatever else we tell ourselves about our subject, the purpose of studying Latin is to train students to be able to read real Roman texts. This is the end goal and everything else is broadly irrelevant. This inescapable reality is – I believe – why both exam boards and QCA are so irrevocably wedded to the notion that students must study a substantial proportion of “real” Latin texts in order to gain a basic qualification in the subject.
Let us reflect for a moment on what this actually means. Unless a child has attended prep school and studied Latin from Year 5 or 6 onwards, students will have started Latin as a beginners’ subject in Year 7 and will be unlikely to have had more than one hour’s tuition per week in the subject. This may increase margially in Years 8-9, but not by much. Within that space of time, the exam boards are expecting a student entering Year 10 to be prepared to study real Latin texts, a frankly laughable notion. Imagine expecting a student of French to read and understand Voltaire or Maupassant during their GCSE course, when they are still wrestling with the fundamentals of the language.
The argument is often trotted out that modern language students have more to contend with, because they have to work on a wider variety of skills: Latin – being a dead language – does not require students to be tested on speaking or listening. Agreed, these skills take up a huge amount of teaching time for modern linguists that we do not have to dedicate when it comes to an ancient language. Believe me, however, this is more than made up for by the linguistic content required. My first Head of Department once quipped, when I mentioned to him that one of my Year 10 students had suddenly asked when we would learn to tell the time in Latin, that I should have replied “when you have learnt the pluperfect passive subjunctive.” He had a point. (He was right, by the way: the pluperfect passive subjunctive is required at GCSE). Rod, who had only ever taught French and German, had seen the list of grammatical constructions required for GCSE Latin and it never failed to astonish him.
Now that I am on the outside of the school system, working with a large number of GCSE candidates from a variety of schools, I am being exposed to a broad range of approaches from each school. Most of them do what I did and plough through as much of the GCSE language content as they can during the first two terms of Year 10, then start tackling the literature texts in the final term of Year 10 and throughout Year 11. This is the best we can do. I have come across one school that takes longer over the language then expects students to have gained enough linguistic knowledge to tackle the set texts very quickly due to their broader knowledge-base; this is frankly nonsense, given that the language required for the texts goes way, way beyond that required at GCSE for the language paper. Some schools start the texts immediately and encourage students to work on them from the very beginning, but this is rare.
For the unintiated, let us be clear: GCSE candidates do not have anything like the linguistic knowledge required to study the real Latin texts that are prescribed for the GCSE. The only way they can cope with and even borderline understand the texts is to learn the English translation off by heart, a simply mammoth rote-learning task. This is what I spend much of my time supporting students with as many are not given the tools and the skill-set to do this on their own.
This year I had something of an epiphany when working with a handful of independent students. Why do we do it? The requirements for Latin GCSE are so unrealistic that I would go so far as to say that the qualification is wildly inappropriate. My belief that this is the case means that I no longer encourage students to take the qualification as a supplementary subject: it simply is way too much to cope with on top of their regular studies. I do not say this lightly, not least because it will mean I miss out on a significant amount of potential tutoring work. But the truth must be told, and parents of students who have a desire to study Latin independently need to think very long and hard about the reality of what that means and whether they are prepared for the sheer slog that it will entail.
So long as the texts required for GCSE go far beyond the students’ linguistic skills, the only way to prepare for the examination will continue to be to learn the texts off by heart. I shudder to think the number of wasted hours that has been spent on this. One of my skills as a tutor is in helping students with this process, because there are indeed ways in which it can be made less arduous and more manageable. I shall continue to do this, to assist students in their quest to attain top marks in the qualification for which they have been entered. But really – what are we doing it for? Is it really the best way to prepare students for a future in the subject? I do wish QCA and the examination boards would take a long, hard and realisitc look at what they are demanding from 16-year-olds and face up to the reality that their examination in its current form is not really fit for purpose.