The Times, 17 March 2007


I never really feel that the week has started until I’ve flung a newspaper to the floor in fury, denouncing the stupidity and wilful capacity to annoy present in virtually everyone who isn’t me. So this week started on Monday, with the call to make language GCSEs easier, because it turns out that GCSE Latin is a grade harder than the next hardest subjects - Chemistry, Physics and Spanish, and that Spanish et al are in turn a grade harder than PE, Textiles or Drama. Now for those of you thinking ‘Latin – Harder Than PE’ is not the world’s greatest scoop, let me clarify: the research didn’t address the subject-matter of each exam, only the percentage of children getting each grade. So PE might be way harder than Latin, for all we know, but only the really smart kids are taking it at GCSE. The thickies are presumably all ploughing through Virgil, wishing that Aeneas guy would stop being so damn pius, and wondering if there’s anyone Cicero prosecuted who wasn’t guilty of the murder of at least one parent, along with some casual incest (not necessarily in that order).

Since 2004, when modern languages ceased to be a compulsory GCSE, they began suffering the same fate as Latin – eschewed for being too darned tricky, by children desperate for a clutch of A*s, and schools desperate not to slip down league tables. So, the theory goes, if we make language exams easier, fewer children will be lured away by the siren song of Media Studies. This argument is presented as the only sensible response to the problems of grade disparity and attendant decline of languages, so I think it’s worth mentioning that it’s a total crock of shit.

Contrary to popular belief, children aren’t stupid. In the run-up to exams, they tend to be given previous years’ papers for practice. When I sat GCSE Greek, Latin and French, in 1991, only three years of previous papers existed, so we were given O-Level ones instead. As we sat in a mass of grunge-related self-pity, wearing army boots with floor length skirts, and sulking about boys, the one thing we were grateful for was the fact that we weren’t sitting O-Levels, which were conspicuously harder. We knew we were getting off lightly, and we took GCSEs less seriously because of it.

Language papers are already easy, often to the point of being boring. I hated learning French, and gave it up as soon as I could – not because it was difficult, but because it was achingly tedious. Why would anyone want to spend 40 minutes trying to explain their Saturday job, or what they did at the weekend, to a bored Swiss teaching assistant who had a tangible hangover and indefensible shoes? I ran straight into the welcoming folds of A-Level Latin and Greek, where I was reasonably certain to be reading about people killing their mothers (Electra), embarking on an elephantine alpine excursion (Livy XXI), or committing big, messy suicide (all Classical literature).

I realise that kids struggling with English are unlikely to feel any better about things by being asked to trawl through Balzac, or discuss a cheery bit of Flaubert. Having once taught Greek to boys whose first language was Chinese, I know it perhaps better than most. But children who struggle with their first language aren’t studying other languages much anymore – only 51% of children now take a foreign language GCSE at all. Which is a pity, by the way, because studying another language, even for a short time, really makes you understand your own – that’s why people who’ve learned French rarely write ‘Could of’ for ‘Could have.’ And they’re good at shrugging.

The prospect of making GCSE Spanish a grade easier, or GCSE Latin two grades easier is incredibly depressing – the first thing to go from Latin would be the literary content – the 150 lines of Catullus swooning over Lesbia while having erectile dysfunction, which are, quite frankly, the exact reason why you’re prepared to spend a year muttering ‘porto, portas, portat.’ No-one else gets to write about impotent adulterers in their GCSE.

We’re used to being told that children have collective ADHD, that they can’t concentrate on anything; that’s why they like YouTube, not Chekhov, and why they spend all their spare time shooting at zombies, instead of studying Zola. But Myst is one of the best-selling computer games of all time – and it comes with no instructions. You need to rescue people trapped in a book, without becoming trapped yourself – check out the meta-narrative in that. Children play games like this, and The Sims, which require weeks of time, effort and concentration, and they do it for fun. So maybe we could stop assuming that they need to have everything made easier, and make it more interesting instead.