Virgil Aeneid VI

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023-2024

One day, or so my fantasy goes, OCR will publish the lines of the Virgil set text and every single line of the prescription I will have taught before. The fact that this has not happened in the 21 years I have been teaching is a testament to their ingenuity, their record-keeping and perhaps their sheer determination to make the lives of all Classics teachers as fiendishly challenging as possible.

Happily, the text this time around has a significant number of lines in common with previous specifications. My record-keeping is not as meticulous as OCR’s appears to be, but from the dates on the files I have just been hunting through, it looks like the 6th book of Virgil made an appearance in around 2010 and prior to that in around 2003. This year’s specification includes:

Lines 295–316: I have taught these lines before.
Lines 384–416: I have taught these lines before.
Lines 679–712, 752–759, 788–800 I cannot find in my resources.

Teaching an epic: where to begin?!

One of the biggest challenges that confronts us when embarking on the Virgil text is how much to teach students about the work as a whole and its place in the historic canon. To start with, it is most important that students are given a very basic introduction to the definition of an epic. I usually go with this one:

A long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the past history of a nation.

After that they need to understand who Homer was on a very basic level: i.e. that he wrote in Greek, and that he was the first and the greatest of the epic poets and thus the father of Western literature. They also need to understand that epic stems from an oral rather than a written tradition.

Many students will have heard of some key Homeric stories, so I tend to hang the difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey around those – Trojan War/Achilles/Hector versus monsters like the Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis. I also explore how the word “odyssey” has entered into the English language.

Following their bluffer’s guide to Homer, students need to understand that Virgil’s poem was commissioned as a work of national pride by Augustus – they don’t need to understand the ins and outs of Augustan propaganda, but they usually find it interesting and indeed relevant to understand that this is what was going on; how much detail you explore with them will of course depend on the amount of teaching time that you have, but it is certainly important for them to understand that the Aeneid was deliberately created for a purpose, whereas Homer’s writings are the result of a process of evolution.

As the prescription is taken from Book VI, it is also important I think for students to understand that the Aeneid is split into two halves, with Book VI forming the bridge from one to the other. The first half is a loose imitation of Homer’s Odyssey (journeys and monsters) and the second is the same for the Iliad (fighting and self-definition). Book VI obviously echoes the descent of Odysseus into the Underworld in the Odyssey, but it also marks the crossover point between the two halves of the work and therefore the shift in tone and mindset towards the Iliadic half of the poem.

The journey to the Underworld is the final stage of Aeneas’ odyssey to Latium, which is mapped out in the first half of the poem. Aeneas’ experiences in Tartarus and Elysium offer him a kind of closure to his Trojan past and prepare both him and Virgil’s audience for his future destiny as the founder of the Roman people. As he emerges from the Underworld, reeling from the images of Rome’s future glories, Aeneas manifestly becomes the proto-Roman victorious general that he must be for us in the Iliadic half of the poem. Through that famous pageant of future Roman luminaries, Book VI also forms Virgil’s central piece of propaganda within the poem; while there are key pieces of conspicuous self-definition at each end of the epic (in the speeches of Jupiter to Venus in Book I and to Juno in Book XII), Book VI is without doubt the most chest-thumping of moments for any self-respecting Roman. This is partly why it is so crucial for this proscription that students understand the Aeneid as a commissioned work of propaganda; Aeneas’ time in the Underworld also affords Virgil the opportunity to map out the moral standards of Augustan Rome, echoed in the cycle of reward and punishment that he witnesses.

At the start of Book VI, which you will want to read in translation with your students, Aeneas’ visit to the Sibyl builds an atmosphere of awe and mystery, with Aeneas’ ritual prayers and the Sibyl’s prophecy. The sense that Aeneas is on a destined path to glory is underlined by his assisted discovery of the golden bough and the Sibyl’s prophecy that “another Achilles” awaits him: we can be in no doubt now that Aeneas is destined for a heroic future. The foreshadowing of the war in Italy also marks the beginning of the transformation of Aeneas’ character from traumatised and reluctant itinerant to victorious military leader and worthy father of Rome.

During his odyssey in the first half of the epic, Aeneas’ meetings with Homeric monsters placed him firmly within the Greek heroic tradition, as he faced up to the grotesque horrors that Greek heroes like Heracles, Odysseus and Theseus have faced before him. In the Underworld, his journey is more personal and profound and his meetings with Palinurus, Dido and Deiphobus see him revisit and make peace with three key periods in his past: his perilous journey as a refugee, his extended delay in Carthage and his former life in Troy. Crucially, Aeneas moves swiftly past each one, a process which is concluded with Deiphobus urging him on towards his future destiny: so Aeneas faces up to his own personal history and is ready to move on, to become reborn as the genitor of the Roman people.

In my archives from back in the day I have lines 295–316 and lines 384–416 produced in the format below. This is just over half the prescription so I am on the scrounge and have already been sent an interlinear translation by Andy James, Head of Classics at Guildford High School, where several of my ex-trainees work. I have sent them my versions of Sagae Thessalae and Pythius in return so it’s a fair swap! The interlinear translation is a really great starting point for me but I do like to provide students with considerably more scaffolding, so I still have work to do: I will probably turn it into a colour-coded text like the one I am using for Sagae Thessalae.

Virgil is a real joy to teach and students respond well to it as a rule. For the last several years I have taught the prose text first as I tend to find that the games Virgil plays with word-order as well as the massive shift towards unfamiliar vocabulary are simply too much for students to cope with; this is working particularly well this year starting with Sagae Thessalae as this particular text contains a significant amount of familiar vocabulary as well as some pretty straightforward grammar that really does not stray far beyond the GCSE language syllabus. The Virgil is always a greater challenge.


OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Pythius is a short adapted text by Marcus Tullius Cicero, published in the Cambridge Latin Anthology and written in its original form during the 1st century BC. The text is part of a work called the De Officiis (On Duties or Obligations), a tripartite treatise in which Cicero explains his concept of the best way to live. The work discusses what can be defined as honourable in Book I and what can be said to be to one’s advantage in Book II; Book III explores what to do when the two come into conflict. In the first two books Cicero draws heavily on the writings of the Stoic philosopher Panaetius, but he writes more independently in the final section.

Cicero wrote the De Officiis for his son, to guide him towards moral behaviour. Rather than just expound his theories, Cicero tells some colourful stories of characters that he believes have harmed the interests of others for their own personal gain: Pythius is one of them. It forms part of a collection of four stories in the Cambridge Latin Anthology under the title Personae non gratae, along with two other stories of notorious rogues by Sallust and by Pliny, plus another short piece by Tacitus on the emperor Claudius’ shameless wife, Messalina.

Pythius is the short tale of a man who stages a false impression in order to sell some land at an inflated price. When he hears that a certain Gaius Canius has put the word out that he wishes to buy a private estate where he can relax and entertain friends, Pythius invites the man to dine with him, stating that – while his land is not actually for sale – Canius is welcome to make use of it. This is, of course, the first stage of the deception – making Canius want to buy the land by telling him that it’s not available: it’s the oldest trick in the book! In addition to this, Pythius instructs some local fishermen to do all of their fishing in full view of the estate on the day that Canius is visiting, thus giving the impression that the coastline in that area is abundant with fish: fishing was big business in the ancient world and well-stocked waters were very attractive to potential buyers.

Well, the inevitable happens. When Canius attends, he is overwhelmed by what he sees and offers Pythius an inflated sum of money to purchase the estate. Pythius eventually – and to all intents and purposes reluctantly – agrees. As soon as Canius is in possession of the land, he finds that the fishermen have moved on and that the waters are no more well-stocked than any other area. Yet he is stuck with his hasty purchase.

It’s been some time since Pythius has been on the syllabus and I found that the last time I had taught it I was still making use of the method of numbering the Latin words, a process favoured by the resources produced by ZigZag, whose publications I discussed in a previous blog post. As this is the shorter of the two prose texts I have decided to stick with this method to save myself some work and to and make use of my previous efforts as a bit of an experiment.

There are two ways of using the numbered method: you can go fully hardcore and expect students to produce their own translation, or you can provide the translation and let them use the numbers to match the Latin text to it (a process I usually support using colour-coding, as described in last week’s post about Sagae Thessalae).

Here is what I mean: below, the text is presented in a format which expects the students to produce a written translation on the lines below. This can be done whole-class and/or can be set as preparation work. It is a worthwhile use of time if you have it to produce a whole-class translation, and students can certainly benefit from this process both because it demands a certain level of rigour and because it develops their study skills – if students are expected to write down their own version of the translation prior to learning it, class time become crucially important; I do sometimes worry that the extreme level of spoon-feeding I have resorted to over the years means that some students will become unstuck in Higher Education – but this is the direct result of tying teachers’ appraisal to student performance and attainment!

Alternatively, you can make use of the same process but provide a translation, encouraging students to use the numbers as a guide to show them how the Latin relates to the English. Students might then use highlighters to make links between the Latin and the translation, or simply get used to the process of using the numbers as scaffolding. This method is better if you know you will be advising students to learn the translation off by heart and is especially effective if you want the whole class to be working to the same translation.

I will be interested to see how my students fare using this methodology. I can’t remember the exact reasons that I lost faith in the numbering method, but as I recall I did find that some students found it surprisingly challenging to follow. It is difficult as a subject expert to look at the text and the numbering through the eyes of a novice, and I guess what seems crystal clear to us can look like a jumble of indecipherable code to a fledgling Latinist. But it’s good to have the opportunity to revisit the methodology with a short text to see whether I abandoned it unfairly. Clearly, many people make use of the ZigZag resources, so there must be something in it. My suspicion, however, is that the students who struggle most will find it less helpful than it might seem. Another issue to bear in mind and certainly something I recall from past experience is that the method is actually very time-consuming to produce compared to colour-coding; it is incredibly easy to make a mistake, and one small slip in the number at the top of the page can spell disaster for the rest!

I shall approach the lessons with interest and will welcome any feedback from my students and from others.

Sagae Thessalae: the witches of Thessaly

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Sagae Thesselae (the Witches of Thessaly) is an adapted story from the mid 2nd century, published in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. The original story comes from our only complete surviving example of a Roman novel. Its formal title was Metamorphoses (Transformations) but it was most commonly known by its nickname, Asinus Aureus (The Golden Ass: the word “golden” is used in a metaphorical sense and could also be translated as “remarkable” or “miraculous”).

The novel was written by Lucius Apuleius and tells the story of a character, also called Lucius, whose fascination with magic results in his unfortunate transformation into an ass. Apuleius seems to have had his own brushes with magic, as he was accused (and acquitted) of using sorcery to attract the romantic attentions of a wealthy widow named Pudentilla. Apuelius was widely travelled, spending much of his life in Carthage in North Africa, where he became a chief priest. He was known for his neoplatonic philosophical writings, as well as for his famous novel.

In the novel, Lucius suffers many trials and humiliations in his transformed state, and the story explores themes of animal cruelty not often addressed in the ancient world. Lucius is ultimately converted back into a human by the goddess Isis, of whom he then becomes a devotee. A blend of humour, adventure, magic and susperstition in what was an unusual and emergent genre in the ancient world, The Golden Ass remains one of the most influential novels in Western literature.

The selected section for the OCR GCSE prescription sees Lucius in his original human form and takes place prior to his asinine transformation. The text is a story within a story, and indeed forms one of several such tales, strung together in what was known in the ancient world as a Milesian discourse – a collection of fables or anecdotes from traditional popular storytelling, embellished for an educated audience.

At our point in the text, Lucius is travelling through Thessaly, in northern Greece. By chance he meets a lady called Byrrhaena, who invites him to a banquet, where Lucius is asked what he thinks of Thessaly. Lucius replies that he is impressed by the region, but is worried by stories he has heard about the local witches, who are apparently in the habit of biting pieces of flesh from corpses. One of the guests points to a man hidden away at a table in the corner of the room, saying that he has suffered this very fate while still alive. The man, whose name is Thelyphron, is urged by Byrrhaena to tell Lucius his story, and he reluctantly agrees.

As a young man, Thelyphron, found himself in Thessaly and short on cash. In a fit of youthful arrogance or perhaps desperation, he took on the task of watching over a corpse in return for money, but during the night he fell asleep under the influence of the witches’ magic spells. On awakening, all seemed to be well with the corpse and Thelyphron felt great relief. However, in a sub-plot thrown in to add colour, the corpse’s widow is accused of adultery and of causing his death and a necromancer is brought in to animate the body so that it can give testimony; the deceased is reluctantly awakened and reports (along with his wife’s guilt) that Thelyphron himself has been mutilated during the night. Only at this point does Thelyphron realise that he has indeed lost his nose and his ears, which were removed by the witches and replaced by imitations moulded from wax.

It is interesting to ponder what Apuleius’ purpose was in writing his novel, especially given our knowledge of his life and his other work. Many have argued that the book forms a set of warnings against meddling in magic; neoplatonic writers certainly saw a clear distinction between what they termed “magic” or “sorcery” and their belief in the workings of the gods. If Apuleius were a true neoplatonist he was probably very suspicious of spells and sorcery. The fact that he was accused of these very acts but successfully defended himself against the charge suggests that he was perhaps interested in the field and may well have studied the difference between sorcery and the emergent practice of theurgy, which came to influence the thinking of neoplatonic commentators in the later Roman empire. To us, from the outside, the rituals would look very much the same; but neoplatonists believed that theurgy was very different from magic.

In terms of an approach to the GCSE set text, students’ priorities will be to understand the meaning of the Latin (which is relatively simple and contains only one or two contructions that are beyond the GCSE language specification) and to learn the translation thoroughly. This they can do by making use of my flashcards on Quizlet, although if their teacher has provided them with a translation to learn they may wish to take a copy of the cards and edit them according to their teacher’s wording to avoid confusion.

I have provided my students with a colour-coded text. My version is based on an original produced by another Classics teacher named Mark Wilmore (whose outstanding resources I have made tremendous use of over the years whenever I could lay my hands on them), but I have adapted both the translation and the colour-coding according my own preferences. I have kept his original excellent idea of marking historic present verbs with an asterisk – this alerts students to the fact that the translation will be different from what they might expect (the historic present is not part of the language specification at GCSE level), and it also helps them from the outset to earmark and learn some aspects of the text that will be very useful to them when it comes to the syle questions.

The idea of the colour-coding is to help students to identify how the English translation relates to the Latin, but this can be further improved by the use of the flashcards. I encourage students to use the flashcards in a two-stage proces. Firstly, they should work through the flashcards in order, stating out loud the English translation that matches with the Latin on the card before flipping it to check. They should do this repeatedly until the process is easy. Once they are fully confident with it, they should then shuffle the deck: being able to quote the translation of any section at random is the point where they have truly mastered the text and its translation.

Support with Latin set texts

One of the biggest challenges students face when they reach GCSE and A level in their Latin studies is the literature elements of the examination. Suddenly there’s a whole new world of real, unedited Latin in front of you, some of it in verse! This can be incredibly daunting. For teachers also, even those with years of experience, the challenge is huge: if you’re working with OCR, the examination board insists on changing the texts regularly (normally every two years), which means a process of constant development and renewal, especially if you teach both A level and GCSE. For teachers working in a one or two-person department, or on their own as a tutor, this can be pretty gruelling. Every two years you must get to know a new text and produce all the resources that your students will need to study the text, learn it and practise examination-style questions; it also means that there is extremely limited access to past examination papers.

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of resources available to support teachers and students in their set text studies. When I first started in the profession there was nothing, indeed this almost drove me into the arms of another subject: I was very concerned about the idea of constantly renewing my knowledge and re-developing resources on such a regular basis. Happily, times have changed and below is my super-quick guide to what’s out there to support us now. If you’re a teacher of Latin who is overwhelmed by how to prepare your resources, or if you’re a student who is struggling with their set texts, then this blog post is one for you!

If you are working independently then it is crucially important to make sure that you are studying the right texts. This may sound crazy but it is extraordinarily easy to get it wrong, especially at A level when the board forbids certain combinations of texts (for no apparent reason). I would advise anyone working on their own (whether they be a tutor, a teacher or a student) to reach out to the Classics community and ask someone to check their selections and combinations. I did this only recently, when OCR released advance information about the 2022 examinations; I asked some Classics teachers in another local school to check my interpretations were correct. Usually people are only too happy to help and you may find others who are working alone who will appreciate you doing the same for them.

The prescriptions for 2020 and 2021 were repeated for a third year in 2022 as a way of supporting teachers during the pandemic. This of course means that it’s all change for 2023 onwards. I will be taking a closer look at the GCSE texts prescribed for 2023 and beyond in future blog posts, so watch this space! For now, my exploration below is a general source of advice on where to find support and information, whatever the texts consist of.

As an excellent place to start, look no further than the workbooks produced by David Carter. Carter has done an outstanding job in building high-quality, student-friendly resources to support learners in their journey and if you’re struggling to get a handle on the set text then you really can’t go wrong by investing in these user-friendly workbooks – particularly if you’re on your own. A surprising number of schools remain committed to encouraging students to produce their own translation, meaning that many youngsters can flounder when it comes to the details. Carter provides a working translation as well as support with the grammar and the syntax, so these really are a game-changer. He has also moved towards providing some style notes, in line with the expectations of the most recent specifications. Carter’s prices remain resolutely affordable and in recent years he has also graduated towards eBooks and SoundBooks for iPad.

Teachers of A level and GCSE Latin will find the resources produced by ZigZag invaluable; these are a little on the pricey side for individual student investment and they also really need an expert to guide you through them. However, if you’re really keen and/or you’re working with a tutor, then these could be good for independent study too. The ZigZag publications provide a broad range of support to accompany the texts, with examination-style questions as well as a considerable amount of analysis and advice on scansion for the verse texts. They also provide numbered word-order to guide you as to how the Latin works against the translation, a method I have used myself over the years. Personally I am less keen on the presentation of the ZigZag resources compared to Carter’s workbooks, but I have invested in them previously as a starting point for my own preparation as a teacher.

Whilst preparing this blog post I almost fainted when I discovered that the GCSE Latin set texts for 2020 and 2021 (also repeated in 2022 due to the pandemic) have been produced as a self-published book by someone called George Sumner and have been available on Amazon for some time. I haven’t been able to track him down on the internet or via any social media channels, so if anyone knows how to get in touch with him, please do let me know as I’d love to connect with him! I have no idea whether he is planning to produce the next round of texts for 2023 and 2024 but I shall certainly be keeping a look out!

A hugely important resource for Latin teachers is the Classics Library website run by Steven Jenkin. This website is an absolute must for all Classics teachers and should already be known to any teacher of Latin who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last decade. The Classics Library resource bank is a great place to source any texts already prepared by other professionals, as well as to find practice examination questions and/or mock papers. No students are allowed, I’m afraid (you need a teacher log-in), but as a student or a parent you could and should ask your teacher or your tutor whether they’re signed up to and making use of the site. There is a similar set-up for the ARLT (the Association for Latin Teaching), who also have a bank of resources that teachers can sign up to. (By the way, if you’re wondering what the “R” stands for in ARLT, the group used to be called the Association for the Reform of Latin Teaching, but they’ve dropped the “reform”!)

Finally, a resource you may or may not be aware of is my own YouTube channel “Latin Tutor”, which is packed full of videos to support students with their set text studies. Lots of schools make use of my channel, most particularly the advice on how to rote-learn the texts using a variety of methods including the first-letter technique, a methodology used by actors to learn their lines. Rote-learning the translation is not something that all teachers recommend, but in reality it is sometimes essential when students are pressed for time in terms of their grammatical studies (the reality in a lot of state schools with tight timetables). My channel also contains advice on how to tackle the longer-answer questions in the GCSE examination, both the 8-mark style questions and the 10-mark mini essay: these two questions combined are worth 36% of the literature examination, so ignore them at your peril! The 10-mark question in particular is very easy to prepare for, and my video advises you on how to aim for a top-band mark in the examination.

Set text work is a challenging but ultimately rewarding part of your Latin studies, indeed it can be your saviour or your downfall. If you know your texts really well and have practised the sorts of questions that will come up, the literature can really pull your overall grade up; by the same token, if you don’t know the texts then your grade will plummet! Remember to start the process in good time to give yourself the best possible chance of doing well.

Which Latin course book do I choose?

Like most difficult questions, there is no straightforward answer to this. The variety of books now available to support and supplement the learning of Latin is quite remarkable, but very few of them are suitable for independent learners; many of the text books available are designed for use in schools, which makes them somewhat challenging for an independent learner to follow. But do not despair, there are courses out there and support is available for those studying alone or working with a Latin tutor.

The more traditional grammar and translation methodologies used by Latin teachers have been attacked for decades since the progressive movement in education decided that everything that smacked of The Old Days was A Bad Idea. However, if the main goal of learning Latin is to be able to translate the texts that the Romans wrote (and I fail to see why else one would bother!) then I’m afraid you need to learn how to do it. I’m sorry if that comes as a shock to anybody. For this reason I am not a big fan of the so-called “reading courses” which, far from being a course in anything, rather expect grammar to be learned through some kind of magical osmotic process. If you want a Latin tutor that pretends the grammar doesn’t exist in the interests of making the subject somehow more appealing in unspecified ways, then I’m not the one for you! Latin is hard, and shying away from the grammar is doing children a grave disservice in my opinion; you may fool them into thinking that it’s nothing but colourful stories for a while, but if that’s your only plan for winning them over then they’re going to be seriously upset with you when they get to the ablative absolute. Plus, I’ll let you into a little secret: children aren’t only motivated by fun: they are also motivated by challenge, so long as they are given the tools to succeed. I have taken numerous students from loathing to love, simply by demystifying the grammar for them. Give them the tools and they will fly.

Anyway, I digress. Below I take an (admittedly irreverent) look at the Latin text books most commonly used as core text books for Latin teaching in schools, including the most recent additions to the canon; but for our review to be complete, we need to start right back in the 1970s …

The Cambridge Latin Course (first published in 1970)

The oldest of the “new style” progressive Latin text books and the one that everyone’s heard of. If I had a £1 for everyone who has asked me whether Caecilius is still in horto I’d be a wealthy woman. Why is it so popular? There is something magical about the first book and even I can’t quite explain it. For some reason, the students just love Caecilius. Who knew that a middle-aged white banker could inspire such joy amongst the youth of today? But somehow he does, and there is the problem (or one of them at least); the students never really get over the loss of Caecilius at the end of Book 1 and they lose interest and heart from the second book onwards.

In the latter half of my career as a Latin teacher in schools I tackled this head-on, writing more stories about Quintus, the son who survives the eruption and carries the narrative forward; this approach meant that students were more invested in the character of Quintus and felt the loss of Caecilius less keenly. In the original version of Book 1, Quintus plays a very limited role and in one famous scene, which I decided to delete, he punches a dog! (Yes, really! Not the way to win the kids over, in my experience). So I invented a whole new storyline in which Quintus falls in love and tries to elope with the household slave-girl Melissa, but then loses her in the chaos during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. I then spun out the story of Quintus grieving her loss and ultimately finding her again as a replacement to the thoroughly tiresome stories in Book 2, all of which I ditched.

Aside from the fact that the books decline in their ability to hold students’ interest, the Cambridge Latin Course also falls down on the grammar, as pretty much everyone who isn’t invested in the publications will now admit. All Latin teachers who use this course supplement the grammatical content to a greater or lesser extent, and who hasn’t been frustrated by the fact that many of the chapters introduce a new grammatical concept and then give a load of exercises about something completely different? It truly is weird. I took my grammarisation campaign much further in later years, re-writing the stories I still used to remove all the personal pronouns (which forced students to focus on the verb ending, an essential skill in Latin translation) and replacing some of the more bizarre vocabulary choices with selections from the OCR GCSE list. By the time I’d finished with the course it was something completely different: a grammar course with the characters of the Cambridge Latin Course as a backdrop.

While the Cambridge Latin Course has started so many students off on their love-affair with Latin, it was never enough to carry them all the way to GCSE and beyond without some serious supplementation on the part of the teacher. If I were starting my career again as a classroom teacher, I’m not sure I would choose it. The much-awaited 5th edition is being launched as we speak, in which the authors have addressed the lack of strong female characters (Quintus gains a sister) and also the pervasive narrative of the “contented slave”, which without question dates the series, as does the fact that all the female characters tend to fall into the stereotypes observable in 1970s situation comedy: pretty girls and nagging wives.

Ecce Romani (first published in 1971)

It seems that vanishingly few schools use this series now, although it appears to have some popularity as a homeschooling text in the US. Ecce Romani was another reading course designed in the 1970s but just like the Cambridge Latin Course it has been updated in terms of appearance (less so in terms of content). I have tutored only one boy whose school is still working with this series and he hated it (although I suspect he would have hated it whatever the teacher had chosen!) One thing to be said for Ecce Romani is that – unlike its rival – it did a much better job of portraying female characters with prominence from the beginning, something that the Cambrigde Latin Course is only just addressing now in its 5th edition: this is pretty poor given that the 4th edition came out in 1998: not exactly the #metoo era, but not exactly the dark ages either.

The Oxford Latin Course (first published in 1987)

The Oxford Latin Course was published, I am told, as a direct answer to the problems with the Cambridge Latin Course, yet I fail to see how it addressed any of them. Do any Latin teachers use this course any more? Genuine question, as I have not heard of a Classics department that does so for some time. I did my second training placement at Brentwood School in Essex and that was my sole exposure to the text book, which they used with their KS3 and KS4 students. The Oxford Latin Course was at the time (and we’re talking more than 20 years ago now) the less commonly-used but well-respected alternative to the Cambridge series as a Latin reading course. Generally it was considered to be a little more challenging and robust on the grammar and certainly it introduced concepts such as 3rd person verbs without a subject much sooner than the Cambridge Latin Course; it also included some mythological stories, which the students enjoyed. Yet as an “answer” to the problems in the CLC? No. There is still too much expected on the part of the student, no clarity of exposition and very, very little repetition: this is the main problem with all the so-called “modern” reading courses – they consistently fail to grasp that the only route to full understanding is repetitive practice.

Still, it might seem a little puzzling why the Oxford Latin Course never really took off to the same extent; my suspicion is that it simply wasn’t as obviously engaging as the first book of the Cambridge Latin Course, and – for better or for worse – engaging is what teachers were looking for in the 1980s. As the CLC surged in dominance throughout the 1980s and 1990s, schools that had invested in the OLC must have felt like they’d been the ones to buy a Betamax instead of a VHS.

Suburani (first published 2020)

Suburani was heralded as the Cambridge Latin Course for the 21st century and it certainly continues in the fine tradition of the CLC in making the grammar thoroughly obscure. My heart sank when I first opened the book and found it repeated exactly the same mistakes, not least the immediate introduction of a plethora of declensions and conjugations right from the outest, sending all students into guaranteed cognitive overload when it comes to morphology. Likewise the introduction of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person but with no grammatical terminology used (why not?) plus the consistent use of the pronouns ego, tu, nos and vos in translation passages, meaning that students will fail to focus on the verb ending and will never develop the habit of examining the verb first. Talk about setting them up to fail. Add to this the constant use of prepositional phrases, with the ablative case completely unexplained and ignored, and this is simply the CLC with all its mistakes on auto-repeat. So why have some schools bought into it with alacrity? Well …

Suburani was a brave attempt at producing a Latin text book that would satisfy teachers who crave a richer and more diverse reflection of Roman society, with women working (not just sitting in the atrium), the realities of urban life (dangerous yet expensive rooms in insulae, beggars in the street, chatting in the latrina) and society as a whole being a little bit less middle-aged white banker territory. I applaud the sentiment and there is much that I think is genuinely laudable, for example the focus on the slaves who worked in the heat and the dark below ground to run the public baths; the slave labour that produced and maintained the apparent “wonders” of Roman invention is something I have always endeavoured to remind students of.

Yet one quick search for reviews of Suburani throws up plenty of people keen to tell them that they’ve got it all shockingly and offensively wrong again; such is the issue with marketing yourself as the go-to choice for people who crave diversity and universal representation in all things – they’re pretty hard to please. (This blog is my personal favourite of all the reviews that address how apparently “problematic” Suburani remains).

My reaction to Suburani is I like it as an attempt to reflect Roman society more honestly. I have no personal experience of using it as a classroom text book but have worked with several tutees who are using it in their schools: they’re all at sea with the grammar, which is why they need my help. Quod erat demonstrandum.

De Romanis (first published 2020)

There was much to recommend this Latin text book when it came out and I seriously considered switching to it as a classroom teacher. Latin grammar is tackled in methodical detail and the text book is supplemented with a far more comprehensive range of grammatical exercises, reducing teacher workload for sure and certainly going some way to address the lack of repetition, which is a consistent fault in all of the courses above. Translation is promoted from the outset and students are explicitly taught dictionary skills. When it comes to engagement, there is considerable focus on gods and goddesses, a subject hugely popular with youngsters and strangely not exploited in full by other modern courses. The layout is also much less cluttered than that of Suburani, which has come under fire for its chaotic appearance.

However (I bet you knew there was a however coming) there are a couple of reasons why this much-heralded new text book with a more robust approach to grammar didn’t quite win me over. I felt that the decision to introduce the perfect tense before anything else was a mistake in a book that claimed to have grammar at its heart and I really couldn’t get past that. In addition, I don’t know if every single Year 9 class in every school other than mine has children that are infinitely more mature than the ones I have taught over the last 21 years, but for me the “willy count” was simply way too high for my Year 9 students to cope with: yes, yes I know that most classical representations of the male form were full-frontal, but really: I simply couldn’t bear the thought of the inevitable sniggering, I’m afraid.

Latin to GCSE (by Henry Cullen and John Taylor) (first published 2016)

Now this is a serious tome and my goodness me the tutees I have worked with that are using this course at KS3 are challenged. In terms of its focus on grammar and detailed unpicking of morphology and syntax, this course is by far the most robust that I have found that is aimed at the secondary sector. It is also the first of its kind in that this text book is co-written by the Chief Examiner for GCSE (John Taylor) and ratified by OCR. It focuses on the vocabulary contained on the OCR vocabulary list and forms a guide to the grammar that students need to know at GCSE level. It is followed up by the equally excellent Latin Beyond GCSE by John Taylor, designed to take students onto AS and then level.

The Taylor and Cullen books are suitable for independent Latin learners as the authors provide extensive explanations as well as vast amounts of practice. Furthermore, you can create a login to the Bloomsbury website and obtain access to the authors’ own translations and answers, which makes it entirely suitable for independent learners and homeschooled students. I have found numerous errors in the ones posted for the Latin Beyond GCSE – unfortunately, I had got too far through before I realised that there were enough that I should have been writing them down to let the author know, and then I simply couldn’t face going back to find them all again – maybe I’ll find the energy in the summer.

The Taylor and Cullen books are used by schools with the curriculum time to take students through the morphology of Latin in rigorous detail (and boy do I envy them that!) They also have the advantage of being tailored specifically to the examinations (whereas other courses encourage students to waste a considerable amount of time learning vocabulary that will not be relevant at GCSE or A level). The very fact that this is so unusual indicates the disadvantage that our subject has been placed in compared to others – can you imagine teaching a mainstream subject without access to text books that are ratified by the examination board? Advantages aside, the only markers against these text books is that they are pretty weighty and unforgiving monsters and I can understand why students used to big glossy pictures in their text books might find them a little daunting.

So You Really Want to Learn Latin? (first published in 1999)

I have recommended this series of books by NNR Oulton to students in the past who want a user-friendly way to revise the basics. Okay, the jokes are a little cheesy but the author voice coming through is quite nice when you’re working alone, as you feel he is cheering you on. The author also drops in little snippets of useful “did you knows” that can demystify some of the Latin phrases that most people are vaguely aware of. The author’s style may not appeal to all as he is robustly open about his desire to tackle “properly difficult grammar”, so the books may not be reassuring to a student who is already anxious or struggling; for an adult, or for a confident child who wants to develop their understanding, the tone is ideal.

Although ostensibly aimed at prep-school students and hence dominated by the vocabulary used at Levels 1-3 and Scholarship, the course makes some strange decisions about what grammar to prioritise in the early stages, for example introducing students to the historic present quite early on; that said, the historic present is pretty common in Latin, so well done to him for not letting a syllabus totally dominate his methodology, I guess. Again, access to the answers is made available, another advantage for independent learners and making it entirely more suitable for those purposes than the course books commonly used in secondary schools. The series is also supported by the author’s own YouTube channel.

Other prep school courses

My shift into private tutoring has been an education in terms of text book usage as well as a revelation in discovering what prep schools were demanding of the youngest of students. Having worked in the state sector all my life, I was used to teaching students who were ab initio at the age of 11. My teaching of the grammar has also been hampered at the state comprehensive I worked in by limited time and a two-week timetable; there were times when, due to poor timetabling and a Bank Holiday Monday, I might not see my Year 7 students for almost a month. Working with prep school students who were already being asked to tackle grammar concepts I was not teaching to my students until year 10 made me question everything I was doing and encouraged me to rip up the rule book. It also exposed me to the variety of course books used in prep schools – far from being stagnant, this is another area where things are changing fast.

Latin for Common Entrance by RC Bass

The text books by RC Bass have formed the backbone for prep school teaching for years and the majority of students I have tutored in the prep school system come to me waving a copy of this course, in one of its many manifestations. The course has been revamped and republished several times and, like any good course in the modern era, comes with answer keys to support the independent learner. Bass switches regularly between Latin to English and English to Latin and his books contain meticulous detail and explanation. He approaches the grammar far more methodically than any of the courses aimed at secondary schools, introducing students to the morphology as well as the grammatical constructs. Some find his approach old-fashioned and bemoan the lack of pictures but frankly I was a convert from my first exposure. Yet Bass is not the only option available to teachers in the prep school system.

Who Said Latin’s Dead? by Rhian Rivers

These workbooks were created by a teacher who says she wanted to combine the rigour of traditional prep school grammar teaching with the engagement brought by story-based reading courses such as the Cambridge Latin Course. Students follow the stories through the eyes of some fictional fellow classmates who are transported back in time (but who also need to keep up their Latin studies – of course!) The course is produced as a series of workbooks, which is something being trialled in state secondary schools all over the country. I moved towards a booklet format for my Year 10s at GCSE level and I would never go back; the format provides students with a comprehensive learning guide that they can look back on and it is also outstanding for homework and cover work, a fundamental practicality that always needs to be considered; it must have been a godsend in lockdown too. The course has much to recommend it, with a good deal of practice exercises on morphology. I particularly like the way it frequently switches between translating from English-Latin to Latin-English.

The author offers an “express” course for schools that are more pressed for time. She does not, however, offer an answer key, so the course could not be used by independent learners or home-schoolers without the regular support of a tutor. She says that this remains a project for the future, so watch this space!

Clarke’s Latin by Ed Clarke

Written explicitly for the recently-refreshed Common Entrance course by one of its creators and examiners, Clarke’s Latin is quite frankly a revelation. My overriding criticism that applies to every single one of the courses above is that there simply isn’t enough practice included at each stage for students to achieve mastery or indeed anything like it. The funny thing is that all the authors must know this – they’re all teachers themselves, so they all understand that mastery is only achieved by repetition; in the classrom, they’re all no doubt supplementing their own courses all the time, a process replicated ad infinitum by every single Latin teacher across the country. When you think about it, it’s madness. But Clarke’s Latin is different.

Clarke has made use of modern technology to produce a course that almost overwhelms you with exercises – never before have I been blessed with the option of saying to a student, “okay, I think you’ve completely grasped this, let’s skip the next couple of pages”. But now, when working one-to-one with a particularly gifted student, I am saying it a lot. In the classroom, it would allow a teacher to differentiate by outcome and enable students to work at their own pace – even the terrifyingly clever ones, who for once will not clean you out of material within 5 minutes.

Clarke has exploited the power of Excel to generate morphological exercises and short practice sentences at a fraction of the speed it would take a Latin teacher to produce them manually; this has enabled him to provide the classroom teacher with a bumper-pack of resources that will never, ever run out. I mean seriously. Imagine it. No more resource-writing. Just a series of course books containing everything you need. More than you need. I’m still slightly in shock! Then I find myself wondering why on earth this hasn’t been thought of before. Latin is famously a structured language and we are in the business of teaching its rules. Of course it was possible to harness technology to assist us in the process of resource-generation. What on earth have we all been doing since 1985?! Well, while we were fiddling about, Clarke has come up with the method and the result is golden.

Like Who Says Latin’s Dead, the new Clarke’s Latin is presented in booklet format, a real boon for classroom teachers and a methodology that’s working in the state sector. Clarke also provides an answer key and extensive written explanations, making the course ideal for independent learners. Personally I am using the electronic licence as I am an online tutor and it is working very well in that format. My guinea pig ab initio student, the first I have tried out the new course with, is loving the rigour: and that rigour is second to none.


In my 21 years as a teacher I have worked with numerous text books and indeed made use of works that are much older and less user-friendly than the modern courses explored above. My shelves are weighed down with text books from the past, all of which have their uses (especially when desperate to provide a gifted student with something he or she has never seen before and might find in some way challenging!) Never have we been so blessed with choice and the latest additions to the canon are in some cases revolutionary.

7 effective ways to learn Latin vocabulary

Learning vocabulary is essential to learning Latin and indeed any language. It might seem tempting to a student to leave the rote-learning of their vocabulary list until closer to the examination, on the grounds that in the meantime they can make use of it while they are studying. This is a huge mistake: by avoiding the process of rote-learning students are placing themselves in cognitive overload every time they pick up their text book.

Whenever you look a word up in a dictionary or on a vocabulary list, you are having to hold it in your working memory – just at the same time as you are grappling with a new grammar concept. Our working memory is extremely limited; at best guess, we can hold a small handful of things in our head at any one time, and over-taxing our working memory leads to cognitive overload. By contrast, our long-term memory is infinite – there truly is no limit to how much you can learn! It is therefore important to exploit our enormous capacity for long-term memorisation in order to free up the working memory to do what it needs to – tackle and understand new concepts.

If you’re really struggling with Latin grammar, it is worth asking yourself whether your lack of vocabulary is contributing to the problem. If your working memory is constantly overloaded, it will struggle to grasp new concepts. Learning your Latin vocabulary can help to alleviate the strain.

So, what is the best way to learn your Latin vocabulary? Fortunately, we know a great deal more about the process of memorisation than we used to, and more and more teachers are becoming research-informed about what works and what doesn’t. Let me explain what’s most important in the process:

1. Test, test and test again:

Even if you think you don’t know any of the Latin vocabulary in front of you, the first thing you should do is to cover up the meanings and begin by testing yourself. I know that might seem strange, but the process of testing forces your brain to concentrate. Just staring at a word and its meaning won’t work; you’ll find yourself thinking about the latest cat video or whatever else is more interesting! To succeed at memorisation, you need to engage with the process and the best way to force yourself to do so is to test yourself. For more on how to approach this, keep reading …

2. Test yourself on small amounts, little and often:

I cannot stress this enough. If your Latin teacher has set you 30 Latin words to learn over one week, you will need to tackle the task repeatedly. While for most homeworks you may be able to sit down and tick them off as done after an hour’s blitz, vocabulary learning should be done in short bursts: take 5-10 minutes once or twice a day and spend that time testing yourself. Start with 10 words. Then later that day or on the next day, return to those 10, adding another 5 words on top. Then repeat those 15 words, adding another 5 and so on. By the end of the week you should be confident. Why so much repetition? There is a reason, and here it is …

3. Be wary of the forgetting curve:

First posited by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus at the end of the 19th century, this memory model proved what we all know instinctively: that when you rote-learn a series of words very quickly, you forget them pretty quickly too. But do not despair! The process of well-spaced repetition strengthens the links your brain has made with what it is learning and lengthens the retention of vocabulary. In the graph below, the red line shows what happens when you learn a series of words in one sitting and then don’t look at them again – after 5 or 6 days, you’ll have forgotten the lot. But the green lines show what happens with repetitive revisiting: your recall strengthens with each sitting until – within the same period of time – your retention is almost perfect. The sobering lesson is: if you do your vocabulary learning in one sitting, one week later you will have completely wasted your time; instead, do it in short, spaced-out bursts, with “forgetting time” in between, and you’ll spend around the same amount of time in total but your recall will be close to perfect. (For more on the longterm effects of spaced learning, see this fantastic post from InnerDrive on how quickly students forget things). For more on the value of forgetting time, see my blog post on this topic.

4. Make intelligent use of flashcards:

Flashcards are an outstanding tool when it comes to learning your Latin vocabulary. You can use the traditional method of physical cards or an online version, which has the advantage of speed and efficiency. Personally, I am a huge fan of Quizlet, and you can gain access to my own flashcards here. What do I mean by intelligent use of them? Well …

Firstly, don’t spend hours making them look pretty, especially not drawing lovely pictures all over them. Many people confuse the evidence-informed method of dual coding (the process of combining words with visual stimulus, either through the use of images or diagrams, like the one above) with the idea of simply putting a nice picture on their work. In reality, the use of images has close to zero impact on students’ ability to learn vocabulary, which if you’re not careful can turn into a ridiculous game of “say what you see.” For example, if I show you the Latin word “femina” with a cartoon picture of a woman next to it, I’ll place a bet you’ll be able to tell me that the word means “woman”. But what have you learned? Well frankly, nothing. You’ve recognised a picture of a woman, which a two-year-old can do. Much better to consider the meaning of the word “feminine” and fix the Latin word in your head through the understanding of derivatives (of which more later).

Secondly, make sure that you’re using the flashcards to test yourself (a process called retrieval), not to reassure yourself through recognition. Research shows that one of the biggest mistakes students make is to turn the cards over too swiftly; students become convinced that they know the meanings of the words when in fact they are merely recognising the answers – and it can be surprisingly difficult to discipline yourself out of this habit. Guard against it by using different activities on Quizlet such as the “learn” feature: these force you to type in your answer. With physical flashcards, consider getting someone else to test you so they’re in charge of the flip!

Thirdly, another temptation is to keep testing yourself on the familiar words (we all like to feel comfortable!) Remember, flashcards are a tool to help you to learn the words you don’t know, so separate out the ones that you’ve gained confidence with and spend longer on the ones you’re struggling to recognise. That said, another mistake students make is to overestimate their level of confidence with words they have recently learned, so make sure you revisit the “no problem” pile a couple of times before you decide that the words have really stuck in your longterm memory.

Finally, shuffle the deck. This is hugely important. Your brain works by mapping links between the things that it is learning; as a result, it has a strong tendency to remember things in order, so the danger with learning several words at once is you will remember them only in order. You must constantly shuffle the deck to ensure that this isn’t happening, or you’ll never recognise the words out of context.

5. Focus on derivatives:

Not only does this help with vocabulary learning, it will develop your knowledge and understanding of your own language and any other language(s) that you are learning. Furthermore, it will consolidate your learning because your brain will be linking its newfound knowledge to prior and future learning – and this all helps with its innate mapping skills! So, do you know the word “procrastinate”? (If you don’t know the word, I bet you’re a past master at doing it!) When you learn the meaning of “cras” (tomorrow), reflect on the meaning of “putting something off until tomorrow”. Likewise from the Latin “donum” (gift) we get words like “donate” and “donation”. If you’re learning Spanish or French there will be infinite links between those languages and Latin: the French for “son” is “fils” from the Latin “filius”. The Spanish for “always” is “siempre” from the Latin “semper”. The list is endless and should help you with all of your studies.

A good tactic as you gain confidence is to select a passage from your text book that you have translated in the past and attempt it without reference to your vocabulary lists. Highlight any words that trip you up and take note of them. If you’re working towards an examination, make sure that you’re using a book tailored to the vocabulary from the examination board’s list, for example Latin to GCSE by Henry Cullen and John Taylor or Latin for Common Entrance by NRR Oulton.

6. Don’t shy away from the principal parts:

To master your vocabulary in full, you need to recognise words in their different forms. For example, if you learn the word “rex” meaning “king” but you don’t make yourself aware that as it declines, the stem changes to “reg-“, you may struggle to recognise it in any other case, for example the accusative (regem). The good news is that the different parts of your Latin words will in fact often give you the derivative: for example, we get the word “regal” from the stem “reg-“ rather than its original form of “rex”. Likewise, check out the principal parts of the verb “traho”, to “drag”: traho, trahere, traxi, tractum – from which we get words like “traction” (the act of pulling/dragging something) and hence “tractor” (literally, a vehicle that pulls!)

7. Focus on high-frequency words:

Consult past papers and practice papers written by the Chief Examiner to create a shortlist of the most important words to know. Don’t know how to do that or don’t know where to start? Well, if you’re working towards the OCR GCSE then you’re very much in luck: you’ll find my flashcards for the list of high-frequency words right here!

The one that got away

Last week I received a message from the past. An old student, now in his 20s and travelling the world in what must amount to a long-awaited rite of passage for that generation, who had their wings clipped by the pandemic just as they soared into adulthood.

This student was a highly intelligent young man who excelled in Latin, despite his best efforts to manifest as a rebel without a cause. We’ve all met them and they’re usually boys. Boys with attitude. Boys with a desire to say to the world: “I’m here, I’m different and the system doesn’t own me.” Most of them turn out to be jolly sensible once they’ve worked out that the bills need paying somehow.

“I’ve had many a thought since leaving school about the absolute ****hole I could be at times. I hope that everyone in the teaching profession knows how much they are appreciated by ex-students, even if the appreciation wasn’t shown at the time.”

He apologised for his bad language but said he couldn’t think of a better word to describe his behaviour in my Latin classes in Year 11. Once I had thanked him for his approach, we had a lovely chat, he proving very much his claim to have matured and developed since his 16th year. Well of course he has. They all do. And it’s lovely when they come back to you and acknowledge that maybe – just maybe – they might have been a little bit of a pain. It’s also a reminder that you never really know the impact you have had, and that the students you recall as the most unappreciative may turn out to remember you the most fondly. Certainly it has set me thinking about the ones that I failed. Some of them achieved perfectly respectable results in Latin, but if they didn’t remain as engaged, committed and motivated as I thought they should be, it always felt like a personal slight. This never changes, no matter how many years you spend at the chalkface. You might stop crying about it after the first few years, but that’s just learning to manage your own feelings: it never truly goes away.

As it happens, this particular student was not the most difficult member of his class, although he did sometimes act as a catalyst for the one who was. And oh, how he was. Let’s call him Dominic. Dominic I will remember until the day I die. Not because he was a nightmare in my classroom but precisely because, for most of his school years, he was a perfect angel. For me. Nobody else. I don’t know what I did or didn’t do, I don’t know whether it was the nature of my subject or the cut of my jib. He behaved. I remember one student remarking on it in Year 9: “You know, Dominic only behaves in Latin, Miss?” I did know. What I didn’t know was why. I carried on doing what I normally do. I used the system, in his case, consistently from the start of Year 7 to the middle of Year 10, it was only to reward, for I had no cause to sanction. In every other subject he received sanction after sanction, punishment after punishment. With wide-eyed horror I read of his behaviour in other classes, the things he said and did. It was utterly inexplicable. In Latin he was a translation machine: always onto extension work, competitive in all the right ways, diligent, focused.

Then one day, everything changed, or at least that’s how it felt. Dominic’s behaviour deteriorated and I began to see the boy I had read about on our behaviour management system, the one whom everyone else had seen from the start. I couldn’t believe it. My teaching hadn’t changed, or at least I didn’t believe that it had: maybe he would tell a different story. But from my perspective, my Jekyll had finally turned into Hyde. I was heartbroken.

Things were unpleasant but manageable throughout the second half of Year 10 but Year 11 turned into a crisis. Dominic had already been removed from more than one subject due to his unmanageable behaviour and when I found myself looking at the data for my Year 11 class after the Mocks, with a heavy heart I went to SLT and made the same request. The evidence was there in black and white. Dominic was already above target grade, and his presence in the room was causing so much disruption and distress to other members of the group that I had no choice as a professional but to remove him: several of the quietest girls were four grades below where they should have been and with all my energy and focus spent on managing Dominic, I simply couldn’t give those girls the time and attention they needed. SLT took one look at the data and agreed with me. So Dominic was removed from the class.

What happened in the end? Well, Dominic still smashed his H-prob grade, ending up with one that was two levels higher. It should have been three or even four levels higher, and would have been had he remained in my classes with the same level of application he had shown in previous years. I’d love to say that, once he’d been removed from the class, all those anxious girls met their target grades. They didn’t. However, they did better than they would have done had he still been there. What would I do differently? Honestly? I have no idea. To this day I can’t explain what happened.

When I tried to talk to him about it, Dominic laughed in my face. Laughed. It felt like a knife wound. This boy who had bought me a gift in Year 9, sought me out in secret because he was no doubt too embarrassed to hand it to me in front of his mates. A little fake pearl pendant on a fake silver chain, it remains one of my most treasured pieces of jewellery. But when in Year 11 I tried to ask him why things had changed for him and why he no longer seemed to enjoy Latin or to appreciate being in my classes, that same boy smirked at me and told me that Latin was boring.

Twenty-one years at the chalkface, seeing one or two cohorts of Year 11 students through every single year, a total of nearly 1000 students who concluded their Latin studies with the same positive attitude as when they had started. I can name dozens of students that stay in touch and remind me year on year of what I have to feel proud of. But I will always remember the one that got away.

Photo by Byron Breytenbach on Unsplash.

Let that be a lesson by Ryan Wilson

A pleasant and heartfelt account of one man’s brief journey into and out of education, Let That Be a Lesson left me feeling sad that our profession is failing to hang on to teachers like Wilson. By his own account in this book, he was frantic to enter the profession from childhood, yet he rocketed through the ranks and out the other side in a frenzied haze of marking and accountability.

From teachers behaving badly to students’ frankly mind-boggling misconceptions, Wilson’s memoir is unquestionably funny. In fact, it’s worth reading just for his hilarious anecdote about inadvertently cupping the headteacher’s wife’s breast. But while that’s a pretty unique situation to end up in (I assume), there is much that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in their local comprehensive. From inadequate training through to achieving local celebrity status, Wilson’s observational humour takes in the gold bullion-equivalent value of glue-sticks, agonising ‘wellbeing’ sessions, speed dating-style parents’ evenings, wasps in the classroom and a kid making you an offer you (almost) can’t refuse of some knock-off DVDs.

Yet for all that there is personal pain in Wilson’s journey. The loss of a much-respected colleague and very close friend to cancer clearly had a profound effect on his feelings about the job, and perhaps his conviction that life is too short to spend it strapped to a desk laden with exercise books.

Wilson also charts his own personal coming-out story. But that comes through as something of a gift in terms of his experience in education. He explains how he found inspiration in the openness of some of the youngsters he met and how this gave him the confidence to embrace his own sexuality.

Wilson does not attribute any of his growing disenchantment with the profession to the students; yet he does catalogue plenty of poor behaviour – what he refers to as “fights, bullying and general thuggery”. In my opinion, that our system somehow persuades someone like Wilson that putting up with this as an inevitable part of the job is an indictment. His positivity about young people is laudable, but would we still count him in our ranks if he’d been trained – and supported – to take a different approach?

Wilson’s journey is also a salutary lesson about early promotion. He seems at every point in his career to have been put under too much pressure, and not simply from excessive workload or accountability. During his first weeks in training, he was left unsupervised with difficult classes; he was asked to teach texts he hadn’t had time to read, let alone study; just five years later, he was in charge of a department of 18 people in an unfamiliar setting as head of English in an inner-city school. Beyond that lay senior leadership. Each moment in his career left me with the feeling that in the long-term this was never going to work.

Although the book reads like a series of anecdotes, divided into chapters with headings rather than numbers, there is a story arc here, and it is Wilson’s own alarmingly rapid trajectory from idealistic newbie to jaded senior leader. He explores some frankly corrosive thinking, culminating in a thoroughly depressing conversation with another senior leader who agreed that the school should hold a minute’s silence for the victims of a terrorist attack on the grounds that “Ofsted like that kind of thing”.

Wilson’s anger is palpable. And to an extent it’s rightly political, too. But ultimately the politicisation of his message is something of a disappointment. His stance that ‘The Two Michaels’, Gove and Wilshaw, have wreaked untold havoc upon our education system is simplistic to the point of naivety. It dates the book, and left me feeling somewhat dejected. The notion that those dastardly villains, the Tories, were behind it all along feels like a Scooby Doo-level analysis for what is otherwise a poignant and very personal account.

Surely a more useful lesson could have been drawn – for us and for Wilson alike.

Let That Be a Lesson: 'A frank, funny and long overdue ode to teachers and  teaching' Adam Kay: Wilson, Ryan: 9781784744014: Books

This post was originally published in Schools Week magazine.