Last generation to engage with the Classics

Mari Williams argues that Welsh civilisation is the poorer for the decline of the teaching of Latin and Greek

Beginning with the establishment of county schools in Wales in the wake of the Education Act of 1889, Latin was a required subject and Greek was also taught. In his 1995 book Welsh Literature and the Classical Heritage, Ceri Davies writes that by 1912 Latin was on the curriculum of nearly all the 110 secondary schools in Wales. By 1925 , the number of such schools had risen to 140 and Latin was obligatory for all pupils at one stage in their school life, with 31 schools also providing Greek. However, since then the story has been like that of Icarus, an alarming vertiginous descent.

For the past quarter of a century, state schools all over Wales, English-medium, Welsh medium and bilingual alike, apart from a few notable exceptions such as Ysgol Glantaf in Cardiff under the direction of Huw S. Thomas and his successors, have shut down classics departments. When classics teachers have retired, they have not been replaced. The subject is holding its position in private schools but there are relatively few of these in Wales.

Yet, in response to the revolution brought about by comprehensive education, classicists in the UK have made the most valiant efforts to render the subject more accessible – the publishing of a two way Latin-Welsh dictionary edited by Huw Thomas is only one of many initiatives taken in Wales. Yet the philosophers of the new age have by and large refused to give them a hearing.

As a result the number of candidates sitting the WJEC’s Latin papers has fallen from 284 in 1960 to only 4 in 1991 when the option was last offered. Since then the small number of students have had to be taught courses offered by other boards. The numbers taking Greek were always small but had declined at A-Level from 15 in 1960 to 2 in 1979 when the WJEC stopped setting papers. At Ordinary and subsequently GCSE level the pattern has been the same  – a drop from 2,379 sitting Latin in 1960 to 84 in 1992, and in Greek from 107 to 9 in 1987 (see Table).

This summer saw the launch of the OCR Examination Board’s new style GCSE Latin paper which is a thin and insubstantial ghost of its former self. On the language paper the number of required constructions and words has been reduced, multiple choice answers are offered and the level of conceptual thought is undemanding for students of 15 years of age.

WJEC Latin and Greek Candidates in Wales

Subject Qualification Year Candidates (all centres)
Latin Advanced 1960 284
1970 197
1980 86
1990 25
1991* 4
Ordinary 1960 2,379
1970 1,854
1980 933
GCSE 1990 104
1991* 84
Ordinary 1960 265
1970 172
1980 38
1985* 20
Greek Advanced Summer
1960 15
1970 13
1979* 2
Ordinary 1960 107
1970 40
1980 11
1987* 9


Advanced 1990 72
1992 49
CSE 1970 9
1980 145
1987* 87




CSE 1980 6
1983* 11
Latin and



CSE 1980* 8

* Last time offered

There seem to be two main and divergent causes, practical and ideological for the quiet decision to forget about classics. In the first instance, with the coming of comprehensives in the 1970s, and having put the core subjects of the national curriculum into place, there was a need to timetable a multiplicity of subjects in schools, including the new and all-important IT. Secondly, Latin (and a fortiori Greek) was perceived as having less relevance for modern life as well as taking time to master.

One often hears the question, ‘What is the point of learning Latin?’. The same question is never asked of, say, biology even though only a tiny fraction of those who study the subject go on to work on DNA or the manufacture of artificial life-cells, or even to use their knowledge of it. Biology is, however, recognised as a life enhancing experience. One could argue that Latin and the classics should take their place with other subjects, such as  biology, that make a well-educated person. Sadly, Latin is still seen as a legacy of the past, when it was the preserve of the upper classes and, therefore, does not belong in the comprehensive educational system of a modern democracy.

The loss of Latin at school in present-day Wales has had unfortunate consequences. When Dafydd Glyn Jones  reviewed Huw Davies’s book in the mid-nineties, he observed that the undergraduates in the Welsh department of the University of Wales, Bangor, were no longer able to understand the classical allusions in Saunders Lewis’s work.

Paradoxically, university departments of classics and ancient history in Wales are reporting a surge of interest and increased demand for student places. Indeed, Cardiff recently hosted the Classical Association’s annual four day conference with one of the best ever international attendances of nearly 400 people. A very successful classics summer school has also been held for a number of years at Lampeter, attracting students from all over the world.

However, pupils educated in Wales seem slow to support this trend and comparatively few go on to be professional classicists. What a huge contrast this represents with the achievement of Welsh classical scholars and the status of classics in Wales in the past.

Ever since the departure of the Romans there has been a seamless continuation of classical scholarship up until and including the 20th Century. Welsh intellectuals, all versed in the writings of the Greeks and Romans took an active part in the cultural dialogue of Europe. Wales was never a backwater, as the following instances testify:

  • Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed a Roman ancestor, Brutus, for Britain;
  • Dafydd ap Gwilym called his poetry Ofyddiaeth as a compliment to the Latin poet Ovid;
  • Gruffydd Robert, was confessor to the Archbishop of Milan and composer of a Welsh grammar which was indebted to Latin discipline.
  • Goronwy Owen was a translator of Latin poetry.

Almost every notable poet made successful translations of classical literature and the tradition has been carried on under the auspices of the Guild of Classical Graduates during their 60 year and ongoing history under the current  presidency of one of Wales’s foremost classicists, John Ellis Jones.

But today we have come to view education in a totally different way. We regard learning as an end to enrich our lives materially and at the same time to create economic success for  the country. The touchstone by which a society has come to be judged is its material wealth and that alone.

The democracy we live in rightly aims to provide a high standard of living for all. However, when education becomes merely a wheel turner for a mighty economic machine and crucial building blocks of our civilisation, such as Latin, are sacrificed to it, we are in danger of losing a valuable part of life. We lose the delight of discovering how we came to be at our place in history and of understanding the attempts made by those who went before us to pose questions and answers about life. Saunders Lewis said that civilisation is in peril when people lose their tradition. In our folly we have disregarded this truth.

Three questions arise. What justification do we have for trying to reverse the passage into oblivion of what is regarded by many as an outmoded subject. Is it too late already? And, thirdly, if it is not too late, how do we go about restoring it?

The first question has already been addressed in part by the reference to its historical significance in the Welsh experience and the impoverishment of education in its broadest sense of equipping a person for life rather than just for work. There are other advantages. Reading Latin (or Greek) even at a basic level promotes accuracy and close attention to the subject matter. This is a skill which is surely needed in any society and is transferable to any discipline.

In answer to the second question, there are a few small rays of light which offer some hope. Welsh itself seemed to be on the same route to extinction for much of the latter half of the 20th Century but has made a significant recovery. In response to teachers from various parts of Britain who are dissatisfied with the new OCR GCSE examination, the WJEC has developed an alternative scheme that appears to meet their demands for quality more fully.

Furthermore, year by year a small number of teenagers in Wales present themselves individually, announcing that they intend to learn Latin or Greek, and insist on being taught. It is almost invariably their own choice with no pressure from parents or teachers. They usually achieve their goal through private tuition. It would have given those seeking to make a career in classics a head start to have learnt Latin at school.

Plans are being mooted in university quarters in Wales to come to the rescue in some way at school level. Indeed, what the classics in Welsh schools need are sponsors or patrons who are prepared to put up a modest sum of money in order to make a survey of the situation and to approach Welsh local authorities and individual schools with a view to reconnecting pupils with some aspects of the classics and to whet their appetites for a deeper exploration.

Could the Welsh Government earmark some of its education budget specifically for such a project or would a private business or industry be willing to do so? Can we find a benefactor for our day in Wales to offer, for example, scholarships to study classical languages at Welsh universities? At the very least, such initiatives might inspire the introduction of Latin  modules into the school curriculum.

A scheme similar to that which already exists whereby authors are invited into schools to discuss their work with pupils under the auspices of the Welsh Books Council could also be applied to the classics. Or could schools co-operate in local areas to establish outside normal school hours Latin teaching. The Minimus project for Latin – a simplified fun version – in primary schools could be more widely introduced into Welsh schools.

There is surely an opportunity for tapping into public interest in Rome and Greece, as evidenced by television series and the heritage industry, in spite of, or perhaps because of, their sensational aspects. An educated public needs the means to judge and monitor such presentations independently, not simply to absorb it in a passive and second-hand way. It cannot be a good idea to allow a small group of advisers – latter day Druids – to distil and select information for us in their advisory capacity to programme makers. They would be the first to acknowledge this. Fostering the critical faculty is an essential part of any educational system worthy of its name.

One thing is certain. If we do not act now we shall be the last generation in Wales with the capacity to assess the contribution and influence of the Greeks and Romans through their literature and to enjoy it in an informed and direct way.

Mari Williams has taught classical languages and literature and other subjects at a number of schools in Wales, including most recently Howells School, Llandaff. This is an edited version of a talk given to the Classics section of the University of Wales Guild of Graduates at Gregynog Hall, Newtown, in May 2010.

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