Latin is to be taught at state schools across England in an effort to counter the subject’s reputation as one that is “elitist” and largely at private schools.
A £4m Department for Education (DfE) scheme will initially be rolled out across 40 schools as part of a four-year pilot programme for 11- to 16-year-olds starting in September 2022.
According to a British Council survey, Latin is taught at key stage three in less than 3% of state schools, compared with 49% of independent schools.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said: “We know Latin has a reputation as an elitist subject which is only reserved for the privileged few. But the subject can bring so many benefits to young people, so I want to put an end to that divide.”
He added that there should be “no difference in what pupils learn at state schools and independent schools”, adding: “Which is why we have a relentless focus on raising school standards and ensuring all pupils study a broad, ambitious curriculum.”
Latin, Williamson said, can help students with learning other languages and other subjects such as maths and English.
As well as language teaching, the Latin excellence programme will also include visits to Roman heritage sites to provide pupils with a greater understanding of classics and the ancient world, the DfE said.
It is hoped that it will increase the number of students taking Latin at GCSE.
An expert group will work with schools that are considered strongest at teaching Latin to create resources that will then be provided to schools in disadvantaged areas.
Foreign language lessons have been compulsory in primary schools from the age of seven since 2014, which can include an ancient language. But from age 11 schools must teach a modern foreign language which means ancient languages would have to be taught on top of that.
The classicist Prof Mary Beard welcomed the move to broaden Latin teaching, saying she was “absolutely delighted” that more students would be studying the “extraordinarily enriching subject”.
She has previously said that Conservative fans of classics such as Boris Johnson and the Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, have reinforced the idea that the subject is an elitist discipline “for Old Etonians”.
Responding to the announcement, she said: “Studying classics opens up history to us – from early dramas, that 2,000 years on are still part of the theatrical repertoire, to some foundational philosophy, from democracy to empire, from powerful rulers to the enslaved.
“But it’s not just about the past. Studying the ancient world helps us look at ourselves, and our own problems, afresh and with clearer eyes.”
Jimmy Mulville, chairman of the charity Classics for All, said: “Any move by government to re-establish the teaching of any of the classical subjects in state schools is most welcome so this initiative focusing on Latin is a good start to that ultimate goal.”