Nick Gibb – 2010 Speech on Teaching Latin


Below is the text of the speech made by Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for Schools, at the Politeia Conference in London on 30 November 2010.


I am delighted to be here today. Sheila Lawlor and Politeia have been and remain hugely influential in steering public policy debate gently in a right of centre direction, particularly in social policy areas such as education.

I studied Latin at secondary school in the state sector, to O level – the grade you don’t need to know. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. It equipped me for life. And it is for this reason, that the decimation of the teaching of Latin in the state sector over the last few decades is so alarming.

So I thank you for putting on today’s conference – about how schools can take advantage of the new freedoms that the Government is giving to teachers, to bring Latin to more state schools and to primary schools in particular.

And I thank Professor Pelling and Dr Morgan for their pamphlet and for the passion of their arguments and the growing groundswell of support for Latin all of you are leading.

Latin’s importance

Latin is important.

Ed Hirsch talks about the importance of cultural literacy and the importance of knowledge in building upon knowledge. Latin is so prevalent in our culture, in our political and legal systems; in our religious and spiritual institutions and thinking; in medicine, botany and horticulture; and in our art and architecture. The Roman Empire is around us every day – from the way our towns are laid out to the literature we read. Virgil and Ovid should be seen as the start of a great tradition of Western literature leading to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats and Eliot. Latin gives us a direct link to our own past – and dare I say it, an insight into how politics and power have always worked.

And Latin shows us how the mechanics of language works. The English we speak today descends in part from the Vulgar Latin spoken by workers, merchants and legionaries. English is so riddled with exceptions to the rule that we need Latin to bring sense, order and structure to grammar. Latin gives us the skills to learn not just Romance languages like Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and French – but the aptitude and confidence to learn new tongues beyond Western Europe.

So when people urge schools to teach a modern language rather than Latin, there need not be an either/or. Learning an ancient language equips you to learn a modern language and vice versa. And learning any language, new or old, helps give young people the academic hunger, thirst and confidence to keep on exploring the world around them.

That’s what makes the decline in the studying of languages at GCSE-level such a tragedy.

The numbers studying Latin at GCSE in state schools, remain pitifully small – just 2,868 this year. Overall there were just 9,360 GCSE entries for Latin – 70% of them taken in the independent sector, where just seven per cent of pupils are educated.

And the proportion studying a modern language overall has fallen from 79% in 2000 to just 44% in 2009 – and when you take out the independent sector that 44% falls to 39%.

This is all at the precise moment when globalization is demanding that we need to keep up with the rest of the world. Business continues to complain about the paucity of foreign language skills amongst school leavers and graduates. Ignorance of languages breeds insularity and it means an integral part of the brain’s intellectual function remains undeveloped.

Reform – creating opportunities for Latin

That’s something we’re determined to put right.

Our white paper has a clear vision at its heart – that high quality teaching is the single biggest determinant of a pupil’s achievement.

All the evidence from different education systems around the world shows that the most important factor in determining how well children do is the quality of teachers and teaching.

And the latest McKinsey report just published, entitled ‘Capturing the Leadership Premium’ – about how the world’s top school systems are building leadership capacity – cites a number of studies from North America, including one saying that:

… nearly 60% of a school’s impact on student achievement is attributable to principal and teacher effectiveness. These are the most important in-school factors driving school success, with principals accounting for 25% and teachers 33% of a school’s total impact on achievement.

This is why, when you read the White Paper, you will see that its constant theme is the importance of the profession and helping to liberate that profession from over-centralised initiatives, from over-prescription and from too much bureaucracy and red tape.

And in that liberty lies opportunity for those who believe in promoting Latin.

You will already have noted our determination to increase the autonomy of schools through expanding the academies programme and giving teachers and headteachers more control over their own destiny. The OECD cites autonomy combined with rigorous and objective external accountability as the two key factors that high performing jurisdictions have in common. Again, in that autonomy lies opportunity – as the proposed West London Free School is doing. It intends to make Latin compulsory for all at age 11-14 – exactly the sort of freedoms which these reforms have opened up.

But also in the six months since the new coalition government was formed, we’ve already begun to take forward a series of reforms to bear down on unnecessary burdens and bureaucracy – granting schools greater freedoms; extending teachers’ powers to enforce discipline; more classroom autonomy; rigorous qualifications, valued by universities and employers; and the right targets and measures, which don’t create perverse incentives to shy away from academic subjects.

These are the freedoms that should assist professionals who wish to reintroduce Latin into the curriculum.

We will slim down the national curriculum. At present the national curriculum has in it too much that is not essential or which is unclear and there is too much prescription about how to teach.

We need a new approach to the National Curriculum so it specifies a tighter, more rigorous model of the knowledge which every child should be expected to master in core subjects at every key stage.

It is our view that in a school system that moves towards a greater degree of autonomy, the National Curriculum will increasingly become a benchmark against which schools can be judged rather than a prescriptive straitjacket into which education is squeezed – a straitjacket which has been squeezing Latin out.

We will be launching the Curriculum Review very shortly – but it will, of course, be looking at languages in primary schools as well as secondary schools. We made it very clear when we announced that we would not be implementing the recommendations in the Rose Review that those primary schools that had made preparations for the introduction of languages at Key Stage 2, or were already teaching languages, should continue to do so. Languages are hugely important and under this government will become more so, not less.

We are also introducing the new English Baccalaureate, to recognise pupils who achieve good GCSEs in English; maths; science; a humanity, such as history or geography; and a foreign language – modern or ancient.

Reintroducing the importance of a broad range of academic subjects as a measure of standards in our schools will provide an incentive for schools to refocus on encouraging more young people to study a language. And since we include ancient languages in that measure, this is a real opportunity for the Latin lobby to promote the teaching of Latin in schools.


One of the overriding objectives of the Government is to close the attainment gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds.

The fact that the opportunity to learn Latin is so rare in the state sector is one of a range of factors that has led to the width of that gap. Spreading these opportunities is part and parcel of closing that attainment gap and helping to create a more equal society.

So when people say that Latin is an elitist subject that shouldn’t be taught in the state sector they are contributing to the widening of that gap and to the very elitism they rail against.