By Danny Pucknell, Lecturer in Classics, History and Politics
As you approach the ultra-modern, glass-fronted Cardiff and Vale College, you would be forgiven for thinking that only that which is at the cutting edge of technology could be taught in a place which looks like this. However, in September 2019, Cardiff and Vale College introduced A level Classical Civilisation to the curriculum and, over the past three years, the subject has grown in popularity. The introduction of Classical Civilisation was, admittedly, a leap of faith for those who run the course, but one that now looks to have been more than worth the risk.
The first cohort had a healthy number: 16 AS and 9 A2 Classics students. In three years these have grown to 20-25 and 18 respectively. How has this been achieved?
There has long been a misconception that Wales was not a natural ‘home’ for Classics and that students would not embrace its challenges and rigours. If the experience of teaching Classics over the past three years has taught me anything, it is how misguided this line of thinking is. Late last year, I presented at the CSCP Conference on ‘Bridging the Gap’ in Classics. At the event, I spoke of the divide between image and reality and why, to put it frankly, ‘Wales has a Classics problem.’ Except it doesn’t, not in schools and colleges where it has been introduced; where it has been given chance to take root and grow. In Wales, Classics is taught in very few institutions outside the independent sector. In Cardiff, for example, Cardiff and Vale College is the only non-private institution to offer Classics at A level. The lack of access is, in my opinion, one of the main factors which hinders the growth of the subject within the state sector.
If asked about why Classics has been a success in my college, I would refer to one of the questions I am often asked. ‘Why do you think Classics will be appealing to students?’ My response can be summed up in a tweet from the CSCP when I took questions at the conference:
Not only is this response what I believe, it is what the evidence of the past three years has borne out. Within the cohort we have: five psychologists, three classicists, a drama student and two prospective lawyers. Not only that, but we have those who wish to work for the civil service, and those who want to be scientists. None of these students had studied the classical world, none of them had done a GCSE in Classics before taking the A level. Despite this, all of them show a love and appreciation for the study of the ancient world, whether that be marveling at the insight and richness of Homer’s Iliad and its examination of the human psyche or enjoying slapstick humour in Aristophanes’ Frogs. Through the study of Classics, students have been introduced to concepts such as philosophy, archaeology, art history, and sociology, to name but a few. It is this breadth of learning that has led Classics to be one of the subjects which the students always mention amongst their favourites. It is now the correct time to see this level of enthusiasm harnessed at other schools and colleges across Wales, where I am sure a similar experience could be had. It is clear that one of the issues relates to the idea of accessibility. In some areas there remains the idea that Classics is a subject related to privilege and the benefits of a private education. The example outlined above suggest that Classics is for everyone, not just the few. I believe that if the opportunity to study Classics were available to more students, the uptake would be strong, and responses would be positive.
The desire to study the ancient world continues to grow at Cardiff and Vale College, where we have recently announced that Ancient History will be available on the curriculum at AS level from 2022-2023. If take-up is successful, the subject will also be allocated an A2 class for the academic year 2023-2024. If the enthusiasm shown for the ancient world in the previous three years is any indication, it appears that the interest in the ancient world and its study at Cardiff and Vale College will only continue to grow.
The A2 Class of 2021-2022 and I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Bailey Owen, a member of our A2 Classical Civilisation cohort who sadly passed away in January 2022.