Hell on earth

I have entered into the jaws of hell, grasped the horns of Beelzebub, set foot upon the murky plains of Orcus and gazed upon the yawning chasms of Tartarus. Yes. I have joined a local gym.

It will be difficult for the uninitiated to comprehend the true extent of the horrors that crouch within the bowels of this threatening locale. We’re not talking luxury establishment here, we’re talking the most affordable end of the market: so affordable, in fact, that one finds oneself pondering exactly how it turns a profit for its owners. Are the fittest of the lycra-clad males somehow disappeared, kidnapped and butchered as unwitting organ-donors for the Diamond Membership gym-goers at David Lloyd? The cheap-tastic gym I’ve become a member of operates 24 hours a day: who knows what goes on in the early hours of the morning.

Simply entering the premises, which sits nestled next to Jewsons Industrial Supplies, is a challenge: one is provided with a PIN number and a QR code, which only veteran members seem able to operate with confidence. “Stick it under the wotsit” says a voice behind me, as I fiddle anxiously with my phone, my friend already through security and staring at me through the fishbowl doors. After a few more seconds of stress, I successfully scan myself into a sealed glass pod, inside which I wait for what seems like an interminable pause, trying to quell the rising panic that I might never be released from the upright glass coffin. After a few seconds, I am spewed out into hell.

WE ARE AN ALL-INCLUSIVE SPACE screams a metre-high wall-notice above a Huel dispensing machine, while the throbbing of intolerable, interminable and unidentifiable music confirms that this all-inclusive space is emphatically not for people like me. The hell-hole itself possesses all the worst qualities of a modern airport, combined with the most depressing establishments to be found in Vegas, Nevada; high ceilings, swirling carpet and synthetic air circulating around a room that never sleeps, no matter what the time of day. Glassy-eyed acolytes move around the equipment like drones around their queen, hovering and quivering with anticipation. Let the horrors commence.

First stop, legs. My ever-patient friend introduces me to a machine designed to supercede the need for squats. I assume the position, which appears to be the one favoured by brutalist midwives back in the 1950s – legs akimbo, knees bent and bottom up. “Put them on the pallet!” says my friend, as my feet flail erratically like the limbs of an upturned cockroach. “Push the pallet away from you as hard as you can.” I oblige, and the pallet fails to move, so my friend adjusts the machine to what must surely be its lowest possible setting, enabling me to gain some kind of purchase upon it. I strain my muscles. Nearby, an ashen-faced male in his 40s stares blankly ahead as he rows back and forth on the spot, AirPods bright white against his ears. Behind him, two younger men laboriously climb a pair of miniature revolving escalators in Sisyphean endeavour. This cannot be happening: I’m having a moment of existential dread and we’re only 5 minutes in.

More leg action with a new machine means using my front thigh muscles to raise a bar from ground level to knee-height. This is quite okay, but I veto the third and final leg-based apparatus, which requires one to lie face-down, spreadeagled over an A-frame reminiscent of the spanking horses favoured in boys’ boarding schools during the 18th century. There has to be a line somewhere, I decide.

The machines themselves are terrifying contraptions with indecipherable instructions, all sprung weights and glistening, wipe-clean leatherette. I survey them dubiously, pondering the fact that my friend had informed me of that morning, that the gym possesses a pool with no water in it. “Why?” I had asked her. “Well, the premises used to be owned by a more expensive brand, but the business model of this one doesn’t run to the cost of a swimming pool,” she said. So the empty chasm remains, presumably waiting for the surely inevitable moment when the gym-goers become overwhelmed by the need to throw themselves headfirst into the abyss.

Finished with the leg-machines, we investigate those designed to challenge the shoulders and arms. Most extraordinary is one designed to support users in attempting full-body pull-ups, a device so complex that I find myself whooshed uncontrollably into the air at the end of the set, dangling from its handles like a spider from a curtain. “There is a more elegant way to dismount,” says my friend, benevolently. “Put your feet on the footholds when you’re in the raised position, and climb down from there.” Of course.

Most of you are probably wondering why on earth I am putting myself through this hideous ordeal. Well, you may recall (I wrote about it here) that around 5 months ago I embarked upon a programme of resistance training with the friend who is guiding me through this chamber of horrors and, reader, I stuck with it. Against all predictions, with the exception of a couple of weeks away and one bout of illness, my friend and I have met twice a week every week since November and she has taken my embarassingly pathetic attempts and turned them into a really quite respectable performance of squats, lunges, push-ups and weight-lifting. My body-shape has changed considerably and I can do things I could not do 5 months ago. I have even tried my hand at dead-lifting and am currently managing 42 kilos (not bad for someone who weighs 47).

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. My friend has finished with a period of gardening leave and is about to embark upon a new, high-powered role doing clever things I don’t understand with sums of money I cannot comprehend for a company I’ve never heard of. As a result, she will regretably no longer have the time to supervise my own personal improvement path, so I am forced to find another outlet for my endeavours. Hence, with her unwavering support, I have set sail across the waters of Hades, with little to no idea as to whether I will honestly have the willpower to see it through in the longterm. We’ll see. My parents are appalled and have openly told me that I won’t stick with it. They may well be right. Yet a stubborn voice of self-knowledge in my head says that I’m more likely to work out if I have somewhere to go and do it; convincing myself that I shall do so in the comfort of my own home has not proved successful so far. My home is too – well – comfortable. So, the hell-hole it is.

Maybe I’ll be like Persephone, and manage to visit hell for at least half the year. Half the year is better than nothing.

Photo by Peter Leong on Unsplash

Thoughtless examiners

While I am the last person who would advocate for whitewashing the ancient world, I do sometimes wonder at the sheer lack of sensitivity shown by examiners when it comes to the selection of the material that Latin GCSE candidates are faced with on the day.

The ancient world abounds with a plethora of stories fit for adaptation. The possibilities are endless. Given this fact, I fail to see the necessity of including stories that even prior to the #metoo era would unquestioningly be classified by all but Andrew Tate’s very worst acolytes as a story of sexual assault. The ancient world abounds with these stories too, and I am not suggesting that we should remove them from the corpus, nor that we should hide the truth of them from students who elect to study this material; it is profoundly important not only that we address these accounts but that we examine what they have to tell us about attitudes towards women and towards consent in the ancient world. But this is an examination I am talking about. Let us remember that there will be a range of students sitting each and every paper, some of whom may (or – according to the statistical reality – will) have experienced sexual assault for themselves. For some of them, the abuse will be ongoing. I’m sorry if this is upsetting news to anyone reading this, but if you work with young people and have undertaken any kind of safeguarding training then it should emphatically not be news to you that this is the case. So, to write an examination that includes a story of sexual assault is either to feign ignorance of the fact that some of our students will have suffered in this way, or is to declare that one simply does not care about the impact that the examination’s contents may have on some of our most vulnerable children, on what amounts to a very important day for them: a day on which their knowledge and hard work is being put to the test.

In an examination, a student who is already in a potentially stressful situation is forced to sit with the material in front of them and process it alone. If they are translating a passage, that means sitting with the material for some considerable period of time. It is clear that the examiners gave no thought to this and I refuse to accept that one has to be some kind of super-woke convert to the concept of trauma-informed education to raise an eyebrow at their monumentally insensitive decision to include this material. Personally, I have some concerns about the spread of trauma-informed practice into education, often pushed by advocates who know nothing about the realities of classroom teaching; I consider some of its most lethal mutations potentially harmful when it interferes with a school’s basic need to provide a robust disciplinary framework for all students to thrive within. Yet humanity and frankly common sense surely teaches us that one should think carefully about the impact that the content of our lessons may have on students, and even more so about the content of an examination that will be sat by thousands of them, on their own, without support.

During my teaching career I worked with the OCR specification, so have come to the WJEC specification in recent years as demand from tutees has increased. I am now at the point where I am looking closely at individual past papers and last week I worked through the contents of the 2020 WJEC GCSE language paper. I was frankly appalled. I have spoken to a couple of contacts who have far more influential voices in the field than I possess and they confirmed to me that they have already raised concerns in the past, to no avail.

So let’s see what everyone else thinks of the content, shall we? The first passage on the 2020 paper consists of Jupiter disguising himself in order to have his wicked way with an innocent young nymph named Callisto. So far, so typical Jupiter and perhaps euphemistic enough for most of us to be broadly okay with the story’s use. However, things do not remain euphemistic. In this particular retelling, Jupiter disguises himself as the virgin goddess Diana, a close companion of Callisto, so that he can enter Callisto’s bed, and the story continues as follows – below is my version of what the students were asked to translate; I have not quoted the Latin extensively, in case they come at me with copyright complaints, but you can view the paper freely here on their own website:

Callisto, when she saw the goddess, was happy; but as soon as Jupiter lay down next to her and gave her a kiss, Callisto realised that she was not a woman but the god. She was terrified. For she had avoided men her whole life, just like Diana. Although she tried to escape, Jupiter held her down easily.

The passing mention that she had “avoided men her whole life, just like Diana” may (one hopes) have gone over the head of most students, but the truth is that it is spelling it out for readers that Callisto is still a virgin. This, plus the clear implication that Jupiter forced himself upon Callisto and physically held her down, is bad enough, but the disturbing content continues:

Having entered the woods with her other companions, Diana greeted Callisto, who was again so terrified that she wanted to run away: she thought that the god was coming back for her. But after she saw the companions, she hurried towards them, crying. “Why are you crying?” they asked. “What happened?” “Nothing,” the unhappy girl replied. After a few days, however, they persuaded Callisto to tell them what had happened.

She thought that the god was coming back for her?! Who thought that line was a great one to include? The Latin is deum ad se redire putavit, a marvellous opportunity to test candidates on the indirect statement with a past tense main verb and a present tense infinitive, well done chaps! Didn’t think about what the statement actually meant, though, did you? I really do despair. (I know I shouldn’t assume that they’re all men but really … what else can one assume? That a woman thought this was okay? I do hope not).

Perhaps worst of all, in a final turn of events, Callisto’s friend and protector Diana turns on her and blames her for her own assault, as does the ever-jealous wife of Jupiter:

Callisto’s companions, shocked by such serious news, hurried to Diana to report the matter to her. Diana, who was very angry, ordered Callisto to leave at once. “You are not blameless” she said. “Do not ever return to us.” Callisto left, very unhappy. She was forced to live in the woods for many months. Meanwhile Juno was watching her. Juno was the wife of Jupiter. Although Jupiter was always trying to deceive her, Juno had found out what he had done. “That very bad nympth will pay for this” she said.

The word (glossed on the exam paper and translated as per the examiner’s instructions as) “blameless” is casta. The phrase could be translated “you are not innocent”, “you are not pure”, “you are not chaste” (our closest equivalent as a direct derivative) or indeed “you are not a virgin”.

The messaging here is clear. A girl is sexually assaulted, is deeply distressed by the assault, is terrified that it will be repeated and finally is told by others that the assault is her fault and that she is sullied goods. How on earth is it possible that this material made it past the huge number of eyes that one presumes (hopes?) get to look at it before it makes it onto the final draft of an examination paper? Did not one of them think to ask whether the content was appropriate or frankly even necessary? Was there no other single story that would have sufficed, from all of the other thousands of ancient stories that are in our possesion? One can only imagine that every single examiner involved was so blissfully ignorant as to the realities of life for some of our young people that they simply did not consider the fact that the material might be unfit for purpose. All I can say is lucky for those who live their own lives knowing so little about other peeople’s pain and distress.

In the past I have written about the content of the text book Suburani and consider some of it inappropriate for younger students, but at least in a text book the material can (and indeed should) be managed by the classroom teacher, who can skip out that section altogether should they decide – as I would – that it is simply not appropriate for their class. If they do decide to tackle the material, they can manage how this is done and provide guidance and a supportive atmosphere for students to respond to it. In an examination, students are left completely exposed, with no gatekeepers to protect them and no safety net to catch them if they end up in freefall. For me, that is simply and emphatically not acceptable and a clear betrayal of our duty of care.

Photo by Zhivko Minkov on Unsplash

Going viral

This week, the second of two manically busy weeks, I have been struck down with the nastiest cold I can remember having for years. Since I now work from home and am largely cushioned against the slings and arrows of outrageous viruses, the whole thing has been an unpleasant reminder of just how horrible it is to feel unwell. The last virus to enter our home was just after Christmas, an equally nasty bug which my husband succumbed to while I remained blissfully immune. “This is it,” I thought. “I have reached peak immunity. I am untouchable.” Oh, what a fool.

As I write this, I am coming out the other side and today is the first day I have started to feel like I’m turning the corner. The relief is enormous and having not been ill for quite some time I am reminded how utterly glorious a feeling it is to make it to the other side of a nasty bug and feel well again. Years ago, I listened rather obsessively to one of the first ever podcasts (before podcasts really became A Thing), which was created by Ricky Gervais, Steven Merchant and their erstwhile producer and general punchbag Karl Pilkington. I recall an episode when Karl remarked that it was good to feel ill sometimes, because it made you appreciate your usual condition of feeling well. Gervais immediately launched into a diatribe telling him that this made “no sense whatsoever” and (as was standard for the podcast set-up) berated him for his stupidity. I recall finding this deeply irksome, given that Gervais studied Philosophy at UCL (he switched away from Biology when – by his own admission – he found it “too hard”). Yet Gervais must have missed or slept through the lectures he no doubt received on Plato’s Socrates, whom I quote verbatim below. The scene is from Socrates’ final hours with his friends before he is executed by the Athenian state. Socrates has been held prisoner and was wearing leg irons, which his guards agreed to remove for his final hours:

Socrates sat up on the bed and drew up his leg and massaged it, saying as he did so, “what a strange thing it is, friends, this sensation which is popularly called pleasure. It is remarkable how closely it is connected with its conventional opposite, pain. They will never come to a man both at once, but if you pursue one of them and catch it, you are nearly always compelled to have the other as well … I had a pain in my leg from the chains, and now I feel the pleasure coming that follows it.”

Plato, “Phaedo

Socrates is observing the fact that a release from discomfort is uniquely pleasurable. Think back to the last time when you were desperately hungry and how good it felt to eat, or when you were dreadfully thirsty and finally got hold of a drink. Pleasure and pain are the two sides of the same coin and – as Socrates points out in this scene – the pursuit of one inevitably needs to the other. (Remember that the next time you’re tempted to have one drink too many). So a positive spin on the distress of feeling unwell is to celebrate the rush of relief and appreciation that comes when you turn the corner into wellness.

This week has also been a salutary reminder of the different pressures we find ourselves under to continue to work when feeling unwell. At the moment, I feel this somewhat acutely for more than one reason. First and most obviously of all, I am now self-employed: sick pay is not an option. If I had cancelled all of the clients that I had booked in for a record-breaking number of sessions this fortnight, that would have lost me a lot of income – income which I will not get the chance to earn in the same way during July and August, when bookings tail off with the end of the academic year. Specialising in the GCSE means that I lose most of my clients overnight when their exams are complete, and even those in the lower years tend to take a break for the traditional summer holiday, so wedded are we to the Victorian model of schooling.

Beyond the obvious need for an income there is also the inescapable fact that my clients need me. Lots of Year 11s had booked in for booster sessions over the holiday, many of whom I cannot fit onto my books on a regular basis as often as they would like. They are frantic for help and the thought of letting them down was simply too awful. This is a mere fraction of the pressure I felt in the classroom, which I remember only too well. In particular I felt the unbearable weight of being the only subject expert in the school. On the one and only occasion in my entire 21-year career when I was simply too ill to set cover work, my HoD rang me up to ask me what he should do; I’m honestly not sure that would happen in any other job that is paid what classroom teachers are paid. But the reality of being a one-man subject specialist was that without me there in school, literally nothing could happen – no one had any idea what I did or how I did it. The pressure was genuinely immense and my school had a rude awakening as to just how much they had relied upon my goodwill after I left my job. My successor had a nasty accident which left him physically injured for several weeks. Being far more inclined towards self-preservation and resistant to external pressures than I was, he was not the sort of chap to be working on his laptop from a hospital bed nor indeed from his sick bed at home. As a result, no cover work was set for any of his classes. I’ll give you three guesses who ended up doing it.

Last year I wrote about the toxic culture of presenteeism, which affects both staff and students in schools. This is something I most certainly do not miss about being in the workplace. I may be at the mercy of the reality of being self-employed, but frankly I think I’d rather that than the guilt trip that taking a sick day sometimes carried with it. Teaching is very much a job where your presence is required and “working from home” is not an option, a fact which I suspect is one of the reasons behind the mass exodus of classroom teachers out of the profession; the pandemic was a tipping point, during which tens of thousands of teachers not only got their first ever taste of working from home, they also got to watch other professions adapt and adopt long-term changes to accommodate this convenience for its workforce. As teachers returned to the chalkface during the two years that finally drove me out of the job, I can’t have been the only member of the workforce who found themselves wondering exactly why I was dragging myself into school when my skills and qualifications meant that I could do pretty much anything else I wanted to from the comfort of my own home. The statistics on how many of us left in the same year that I did are frankly alarming and are an ongoing issue that the government needs to address; until they take a long, serious look at why so many teachers do not want to teach any more, I cannot see the situation improving.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Last-minute help?

This is the first of two remarkably busy weeks working with a very large number of Year 11s during their school holidays, preparing for the forthcoming GCSE examinations. Many of these students have approached me in just the last few weeks seeking help, and it is remarkable how much can be achieved in a short time prior to the final exams.

Many clients are surprised by the assurance that help can be worthwhile at this late stage. Many contact me in a state of panic or near despair, convinced that the situation is unsalvageable and unsure why they’re even asking for my advice. Yet within a few weeks it is possible to have an impact on a student’s confidence and their attainment, so long as you know what to focus on.

First and foremost, it is essential to assess the particular areas with which a student is struggling. This in itself can be a challenge, since many students (and certainly their parents) can struggle to identify where the problems lie. Students often present with nothing more than the fact that they need help with “the grammar”, so I rely largely on my own detective work to get to the bottom of what can be done to improve the situation. At a late stage of intervention this may well not mean delving into complex material, nor indeed trying to ask them to learn basic fundamentals. At this stage, it’s about identifying and selecting some concrete things to address that will gain them a win.

One thing that can be tackled head-on is their performance in the grammar questions, which make up 10% of their language mark. The examiner is remarkably repetitive and we are now in possession of enough past papers to prove this concept. Showing students every single past paper in quick succession, focusing entirely on the grammar questions and demystifying what it is that the examiner is looking for in their answer can be a real game-changer. In just one session it is usually possible to help get most students to the point where they can achieve 8 or 9 out of 10 in that section. To achieve full marks, students require a whistlestop tour of the uses of the subjunctive, which is a question the examiner has asked every single year, and that can take up another session or two. The uses of the subjunctive are another relatively easy win because most exam papers contain at least 5-10 sentences containing one of these constructions, so an understanding of how to translate those clauses gains them a significant margin.

There are further gains to be had if we have time to look at several practice papers as they can be coached on the types of phrasing that come up on a regular basis. I have identified a collection of common phrases that appear on exam papers with striking regularity, and a student who is perhaps overwhelmed with vocabulary learning can benefit from focusing their revision on these phrases. In addition, I have a list of high-frequency words that come up time and again on exam papers. Focusing on the high-frequency words will not gain a student a top grade in the exam (you need all the vocabulary for that!) but it can be a real game-changer for students who are struggling at the pass-mark.

Some students come to me for help with the literature and the majority of the time it is because they are completely overwhelmed by how to go about committing the texts to memory. I have written before on the fact that too many teachers tend to assume that students have the knowledge, experience and skills to rote-learn vast quantities of material without support, but in my experience, this really is not the case. My grades went up significantly when I started to assume that students did not have this knowledge and I taught them explicitly how to go about the process. Likewise, my grades went up when I took the risk of allowing them short bursts of class time to make a start on the process – this afforded me the opportunity to model the process and then monitor them using it. Many students are resistant to advice when it comes to study skills, so it’s important to ensure that they do give effective methodologies a chance so that they can be converted to the process. If left to their own devices, many students will ignore the suggestions made by their teachers, attempt to do it their own way and fail.

I am finding the work that I am doing immensely rewarding. Just this week I had a particularly heartening message from a client saying that her son is really seeing a difference. “He’s just said to me “ a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have had a clue and now I am getting them all right”. So grateful.” This particular student has been through exactly the process I have outlined above – I took him on a whistlestop tour of the uses of the subjunctive, we reviewed all the grammar questions on past papers and now we’re onto as many practice papers as we have time for, tackling some further easy wins such as time phrases along the way. Once the student is on board with the notion that it is never too late to turn their performance around, it’s quite remarkable what can be achieved.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

They didn’t (always) behave for me

A conversation with one of my younger tutees this week reminded me just how toxic classroom disruption can be. While rueing his poor performance in a recent test, the boy expressed real frustration about the situation in his Latin class. “Some kids just see it as their job to mess around” he said. He even reported that the situation had brought his teacher to tears in the past.

At even its most minor level, any form of classroom disruption is an issue for all learners. Children who may be struggling with the material go unsupported because their teacher’s attention is taken by the disruptors in the class (who may, of course, be struggling themselves). Schools which have not yet faced up to the inescapable fact that impeccable behaviour is the central, non-negotiable foundation on which all teaching and learning is built, those schools will continue to let young learners down.

One of the things I find most puzzling about the teaching profession is that we cannot seem to agree on how to manage behaviour. Debates continue to rage about schools which set the bar high, with cries from numerous educators claiming that vulnerable students and/or SEND students cannot handle such a high bar and that clear boundaries such as the use of SLANT in classrooms and the insistence on silent corridors are oppressive and stifling. I find this baffling, not to mention an insult to the children with those needs. As someone who has worked in schools rated Good or Outstanding for behaviour, I can tell you that there were times when I was frightened in the corridors. There were times when I felt pushed around and intimidated by some students. There were times when I felt humiliated. What this all translates to in schools with behaviour that ends up being classified below Good I cannot even begin to imagine. Moreover, if I as a middle-aged adult felt like this in the school corridor, how did our most vulnerable students feel?

A recent survey on Teacher Tapp, a daily survey app for classroom teachers, highlighted the ever-increasing use of ear defenders by some students in our schools. As I pointed out in response to the discussion, I find their necessity deeply depressing. How did we get to the point where we simply accept that some school environments are too noisy and overwhelming for some of our students? Like that’s ok? And like noisy, boisterous environments aren’t actually a negative for all learners? How on earth did we end up in a situation in which the kind of equipment required by men on building sites using machines to break up concrete becomes a necessity to protect our students from the environment in our schools?

Let me tell you about my one of my own experiences in the classroom. I was sent to an expensive girls’ boarding school (although I didn’t board, I was one of a small percentage of day pupils). In Year 9 (or the Upper Fourth, as it was called would you believe) I was part of a Classical Civilisation class run by a young female teacher whom I shall call Miss Jones. Poor Miss Jones was a sweet, kind and well-meaning woman, who no doubt went into teaching because she cared about her subject and wanted to share it with the world. I suspect she had no training, because in a private school in the 1980s teacher training was considered very much optional and barely even desirable. The school was tiny, consisting of 400 girls in total and had a pretty strict regime – for example, silent corridors. The Head was terrifying – genuinely so. But poor Miss Jones, with her reticent nature, her lack of training and her lack of experience, had no control over our class. One girl was particularly disruptive. I shall call her Millie. Millie was taller and looked older than most of us. She terrified many of us and was a merciless bully to some. That included Miss Jones. Millie refused to cooperate with the class, to the extent that she would not sit where she was told, she would not participate in the class in any way, she would not even unpack her bag. She would lay her head on the desk in a flagrant show of disdain. Miss Jones’s methodology was to ignore her and try to teach around her, but behaviour in general was so poor that we all learnt very little. She never received any support or help with the situation and did not last long in the job.

I share this to illustrate the fact that issues with poor behaviour occur in all schools. Another recent survey from Teacher Tapp, carried out just this week, indicates that student behaviour, alongside workload, is now the overwhelming reason why teachers are leaving the profession in their thousands. There is much talk about “challenging” schools and understandably so, because getting behaviour right in such places has very real safeguarding issues, as explained in this brilliant blog post which I have cited many times before. Yet I would like to highlight the fact that behaviour that is disruptive enough to impact on teaching and learning goes on everywhere – in schools rated Good or Outstanding, in grammar schools and in private schools. Some of what I hear from my tutees would not be out of place in a chapter of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – and these are the sorts of schools with Latin on their timetable.

While I do not wish to promote panic or cause any pearl-clutching, I do believe that disruptive behaviour in our schools is an issue that nobody wants to face up to. Nobody – whether they are a parent or a teacher – wants to believe that our children’s education is being hampered by disruption in the classroom. It is hard for all of us to accept. While writing this blog post, a memory from close to a decade ago came back to me with a jolt. It is a comment made by a boy in one of my past Forms, a boy who was one of the most disruptive members of the class (and indeed the school). “Your PSHE lessons are like watching a YouTube video with crap internet, Miss: you keep buffering.” I recall being somewhat non-plussed by this rude remark, one which was called out across the class and interrupted the flow of the lesson in exactly the way he was describing. Out of the mouths of our not-so-innocent babes can come the real truth: my ability to share information was being constantly put on pause, meaning that the flow of explanation was consistently and endlessly interrupted. This was painfully obvious, even to the members of the class who were causing most of the interruptions, a fact we should perhaps give some thought. I remember being further stunned when an out-of-control student expressed his desire to join the army; as I picked my jaw up off the floor and used it to point out to him that he would have to behave in the army, he said “yeah. That’s the point.” I’ve never forgotten the fact that he knew he needed more discipline than we were providing for him. We let him down. Badly.

So, back to my tutee, who was complaining about the behaviour in his Latin class. He described exactly the kind of intermittment “buffering” that the lovely Liam pointed out to me a decade ago, so it sounded all-too familiar, but this week it really hit me just how truly appalling the situation is for so many young learners and just how many of them have come to accept it as part of their school experience. “Just as I think I’m starting to get something,” he said, “the teacher has to stop and then I’ve lost it all over again.” That’s when my heart broke a little.

It’s hard to know who needs to hear this but I suspect it’s all of us: classroom teachers, parents and senior leaders all need to face up to the problem for what it is and reassert our right and our responsibility to be the adults in the room. Disruption – low-level or otherwise – is kryptonite to every child’s understanding and progress. To ignore this is to let all of our children down.

Image genrated by AI

Nobody said it would be this hard

Why does Latin have the reputation of being so difficult? Everybody thinks that it’s difficult and to some extent it is – but so is any language, once you get past, “Bonjour, je m’appelle Emma”.

Grammar is tricky and it’s still not taught in our own language to the degree that it is in most other countries. To listen to educators, writers and commentators report on the increased level of rigour in the teaching of literacy in primary schools, you’d think that the problem was solved. In truth, the level to which grammar is taught discretely in English schools is still woeful by comparison with schools in other countries. To a certain extent, this is a self-perpetuating problem caused by failures in the system over the last couple of generations. Many current teachers admit that they struggle to teach concepts that they themselves were never taught in school, and if I had a £1 for every English teacher that has come to me for help with basic English grammar, I’d have enough for a slap-up meal.

Let’s take a closer look at why some children struggle so much with Latin over and above their other subjects and – specifically – more than any other language they might be learning in school. One obvious reason, I think, is the unfamiliar territory which this dead language presents to family and friends. Many parents and guardians feel able to offer support to their children in other subjects, certainly in the early years. I work with many families who are really involved with their children’s homework and study and children certainly do benefit from this kind of proactive and interested support at home. Lots of families employ me because they care about their children’s studies but they themselves feel ill-equipped to support them in Latin due to their own lack of knowledge; with only around 2.5% of state schools currently offering Latin on their timetable, I don’t anticipate that situation changing in a hurry. As a result of the fact that so few people have experience of Latin as a subject, it maintains a kind of mystique, and that all feeds into its reputation as an inaccessible and challenging subject.

Furthermore, and at the risk of stating the obvious, Latin is an ancient lanaguage and a dead one. What does it mean that the language is dead? Quite simply, that nobody speaks it any more. As a result, the content of what children are asked to translate will often seem very obscure. The ancient world was very different from ours and much of what went on – even in the most mundane aspects of daily life – can seem unfamiliar or even bizarre. Add to this the fact that a lot of the time students will be looking at stories from ancient myths or founding legends and we’re then into a whole new world of weirdness. The thing is, children generally like the weirdness – and indeed the darkness – of these ancient tales; if you think that children don’t appreciate the darkness of the world then explain the thundering success of a children’s author such as Patrick Ness. Children are not necessarily put off by the puzzling nature of what they are translating, but it can certainly contribute to their belief that the material is obscure.

The realities of learning an ancient language compared to a modern one are summed up by this absolutely hilarious snippet which has been doing the rounds on the internet for donkey’s years:

So, we’ve dealt with Latin’s reputation and we’ve explored the inherent fact of it being an ancient, dead language that may make it potentially difficult to access. On top of that lies the truth that Latin as a language is very different from our own and indeed from any others we are likely to be taught in UK schools.

The most important thing to understand is that Latin is a heavily inflected language. What that means is that word-formation matters: we’re not just talking about spelling here, because if you look at a word that is wrongly spelled in English, you will still more than likely be able to recognise it in context and thus understand the sentence. However, in inflected languages, words are modified to express different grammatical categories such as tense, voice, number, gender and mood. The inflection of verbs is called conjugation and this will be familiar to students of all languages, but in Latin (and in other heavily-inflected languages such as German) nouns are inflected too (as are adjectives, participles, pronouns and some numerals). So, words change and therefore become difficult to recognise. What blows students’ minds most in my experience is how this inflection translates into English and how the rendering of that translation can be confusing. For example, ad feminam in Latin means “to the woman” in the sense of “towards the woman”, so I might use the phrase in a sentence such as “the boy ran over to the woman”. However, as well as ad feminam, the word feminae, with that different ending and no preposition, can also mean “to the woman”, but this time in the sense of “giving something to”. I would therefore use feminae in a sentence such as “I gave a gift to the woman”. Using ad feminam in that context would be completely wrong. Trying to unpick why two grammatically different phrases sound the same in English is just one tiny example of myriad of misconceptions and misunderstandings that children can acquire and that can cause problems later down the line. What’s great about one-to-one tutoring, of course, is that these kinds of misconceptions can be uncovered, unpicked and rectified.

Due to its inflection, many Latin words become extremely difficult to recognise as they decline or conjugate. This brings us to what many students find the most disheartening thing about the subject, which is vocabulary learning. If a student has worked hard to learn the meaning of a list of words, imagine their disappointment and frustration when this effort bears no fruit for them when it comes to translating. A child may have learned that do means “give” but will they recognise dant, dabamus or dederunt, which are all versions of that same verb? Well, without explicit instruction, lots of practice and a huge amount of support, probably not. This can be really depressing for students and can lead to them wanting to give up altogether, which is where a tutor comes in.

Another consequence of the fact that Latin is inflected is that a Latin sentence has to be decoded – you can’t just read it from left to right. Breaking the habit of reading from left to right is one of the biggest challenges that we face when trying to teach students how to succeed in Latin. Even when a child has worked hard to learn all of their noun endings and all of their verb endings, they still need a huge amount of support and scaffolding to show them how to process these and map them onto the sentences in front of them. Most Latin teachers really underestimate the amount of time, effort and repetition that it takes to help them to break this habit. Once again, this is where one-to-one tuition can be really powerful: working with a child to model the process is key.

A picture is worth a thousand words

One of the most disquieting things about the world in which we find ourselves is that our eyes and ears can be deceived. In my younger years, I never would have believed this possible. I was raised on movies such as Clash of the Titans and One Million Years BC, so the idea that special effects would ever become genuinely convincing seemed ludicrous to me. Yet fast forward a few years to the advent of CGI and I was witnessing films such as Jurassic Park, so I guess I should have seen the next stage coming.

The advent of AI is genuinely unsettling. We already inhabit a world in which it is possible to make anyone say anything. Take an image of someone famous, take their voice, feed it into the right kind of software managed by someone with decent skills and bingo – you’ve got Sadiq Khan saying “I control the Met police and they will do as the London Mayor orders” and suggesting that the Armistice Day memorial service be moved in order to make way for a pro-Palestininan march to take place. Even Sadiq Khan himself agreed that it sounded exactly like him. It kind of was him. Only he never said it. So this is where we are.

One of the earliest cases of mass hysteria over a fake photograph took place in the early 1900s, when nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her mother – both newly arrived in the UK from South Africa – were staying with Frances’s aunt Polly and cousin Elsie, in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire. Elsie and Frances played together in the valley at the bottom of the garden, and said that they went there to see the fairies. To prove it, Elsie borrowed her father’s camera and dark room and produced a series of photographs of the two of them … well … playing with fairies. While Elsie’s father immediately dismissed the photographs as a fake and a prank on the part of the girls, Elsie’s mother was convinced by them. The pictures came to the attention of writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who used them to illustrate an article on fairies he had been commissioned to write for the Christmas 1920 edition of The Strand Magazine. As a spiritualist, like many thinking men of his time, Doyle was convinced by the photographs, and interpreted them as clear and visible evidence of psychic phenomena. He was not alone.

One of five photographs taken by Elsie Wright (1901–1988) and Frances Griffiths (1907–1986)

This week’s horrendouly doctored photograph of the Princess of Wales and her three children was an extraordinary example of incompetence on the part of the Royal family’s comms team. Into a world which is already somewhat alive with gossip about the welfare and whereabouts of the princess, they released a photograph so badly edited that it was immediately withdrawn by major news outlets such as Reuters and the Associated Press. Reporting in the mainstream media has remained broadly philosophical and seems to accept claims by the palace that Kate herself had simply been messing about with Photoshop, that the photograph is a poorly-executed mash-up of several frames. Those of us that hang around on the internet, however, will know that the incident has sent the world into meltdown, with theories as to the whereabouts and welfare of the princess going wild. Many people believe that the botched photograph is a complete fake that proves Kate is currently either unwilling or unable to be photographed for real. Some have even convinced themselves that she is dead.

In a world where trust in authorities is becoming more and more eroded, I wonder whether the advent of AI will make us more and more afraid. I am a little afraid myself. Photographs used to be damning evidence and fake versions of them so obvious that they held no sway in a court of law or in the court of (reasoned) public opinion. These days, not only can convincing photographs be easily faked, but this fact opens up what is perhaps an even more frightening prospect: that anyone will be able to get away with anything, simply by claiming that the evidence as to their guilt is faked. Caught me with my hands in the till? It’s a fake. Caught me on camera with the secretary, darling? It’s a fake. Caught me attacking that person? It’s a fake. I find myself wondering how any of us will ever be sure of anything in the future.

The reluctant Luddite

I am anything but a Luddite. Technology is remarkable and wonderful and I could not be luckier to have been born in the late 20th century and have the privilege of seeing our access to the written word proliferate thanks to the digital world.

As someone cursed with poor (and increasingly deteriorating) eyesight, I thank my lucky stars on a daily basis for the advent of smart screens, giving me the power to choose the nature, size and resolution of fonts, not to mention the simply glorious dawn of the audiobook. The younger among you will not recall, but the reading options for people with poor eyesight even just 20 years ago were dismal: a vanishingly small number of books were put onto audio CD and very few places stocked them. These days, the best actors are squabbling over the reading rights to books. Not long ago, I listened to a simply perfect narration of The Dutch House by Ann Pratchett, read by some chap called Tom Hanks. In a world where current research seems to indicate a worrying downturn in children reading for pleasure, I support any and all routes for them to access stories and tales, by whatever means.

As a result of all this, I always feel slightly uncomfortable when I find myself making a case against digital technology. I am the last person to criticise for I acknowledge and appreciate the huge benefits that the advent of the internet and digital technology have brought to me. Not only could I not do my job without them, my life would be infinitely poorer and less diverse. Yet one must always be cautious of what one is throwing away, and when it comes to children’s development of literacy we should be particularly so. First and foremost, we should be hyper-focused on the best ways of helping children to learn to read and write.

In January, the Guardian highlighted that “a ground-breaking study shows kids learn better on paper than on screen,” but the truth is that this information has been out there for at least two decades. Modern cognitive science evidences that motor and sensory aspects of our behaviour have a far-reaching impact on our knowledge and recall. Of course it does. Our brain is an embodied phenomenon that makes sense of the world through the physical data it receives. In a study carried out way back in 2005, subjects were shown a series of words and asked to indicate whether each word was positive or negative by moving a joystick. Half of the subjects were told to indicate that a word was positive or “good” by pulling the joystick towards their bodies, while the other half were told to indicate “good” by pushing it away. A consistent correlation was observed between meaning and movement: the quickest, most accurate and most confident responses were produced by the subjects who were told to indicate “good” by pulling the joystick towards themselves, and to indicate “bad” by pushing it away. The hypothesis is that this relates to our natural embodied state – what’s “good” feels natural drawn physically towards us, what’s “bad” feels like something we should naturally push away. This direct and inherent involvement of the body and senses in our cognitive processes helps to explain how writing by hand (as opposed to on a keyboard or a tablet) helps us to learn letters and words most efficiently. The fact that forming letters by hand is superior to doing so with the use of technology is well accepted among cognitive scientists and literacy specialists.

Furthermore, it is not just the early-years essentials of learning to write that are supported by the process of hand-writing. A study in 2021 compared subjects’ recall of words learned either by typing or writing by hand and found that recall was better when words had been learned using a pen and paper. In another study, a small group of adults learned symbols from an unfamiliar language that they then had to reproduce with either a pen or a keyboard. When they had finished learning the symbols, there were no differences in recall between the two methods, but the keyboard users forgot a significant amount of what they had learned as time passed. In other words, the process of handwriting the symbols was much more effective for long-term recall. Evidence for the effectiveness of handwriting over typing when it comes to learning is now pretty overwhelming and neuroscientists suggest that learning with a pen and paper is better because it is more “embodied,” meaning that it involves more complex sensory-motor feedback for each letter as it is written down. This complexity leaves a more distinctive blueprint in our memories and hence makes things easier to memorise and recall.

I have written before on a methodology I teach to help students to learn their set texts off by heart. The process involves writing down the first letter of each word and works only if students do so by hand. The effectiveness of the method is increased hugely if the student can be persuaded to say the whole word aloud as they write the letter. So, to learn the opening line of Portia’s speech to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, students would say out loud “The quality of mercy is not strained” while writing the letters “T q o m i n s” in time with their articulation of the words. The physicality of the process and the immersive nature of writing, saying and repeating is quite remarkably powerful and I have never had a student fail to learn the texts using this method.

The data and current research on the importance of physical texts and handwriting have not gone unnoticed. Sweden, a country often cited as superior to ours when it comes to education, experienced a downtrend in literacy levels from 2016 onwards and is back-peddling wildly on their roll-out of digital technology in schools, returning to a focus on physical books and handwriting. What’s worrying for me is that the trend may be going in the opposite direction in the UK. Perhaps most worrying of all, the major examination boards have all indicated their desire to move towards digital examinations, despite the overwhelming chorus of dismay from Headteachers across the country who know that they simply do not have the infrastructure to support such a move. It is unsurprising that examination boards want to push the digital model, as the current process of collecting and digitising examination scripts no doubt costs them a fortune; but beyond the logistical nightmare for schools that the digitisation of examinations will present, I genuinely fear for the impact on students’ literacy and understanding. A move towards digital examinations will push schools further down the road of letting students do everything on screen (many private schools and well-funded academies are already there) and the effect on their learning will be catastrophic. Some of the students I work with are already in this position and their grasp of the texts they are learning is woeful; their teachers allow them access to a simply overwhelming number of documents, all of which they are expected to have the skills to access and draw information from, when in reality they have little to no idea what’s actually in front of them and how that relates to what they need to commit to memory.

So I find myself a somewhat reluctant Luddite, telling my students to reach for a notepad and pen and encouraging them to form letters on a page by hand. The irony in the fact that I am doing so over Zoom is not lost on me, but here’s the thing: technology is incredible, it is life-changing, it is illuminating, it is wonderfully democratic and a great leveller for those of us with physical disabilities. We must, however, be circumspect with how we use it and thus ensure that we do not unwittingly lose more than we gain.