From The Daily Telegraph March 19 2011
Dum liberi liberos docent, gaudet Charlotte Phillips
(As children teach children, Charlotte Phillips rejoices)
Charlotte Phillips hands over to the children to teach Latin
Visit the after-school Latin club at SS Philip and James’s C of E primary school in Oxford, Phil and Jim for short, and the first thing that strikes you is how quiet it is. Not that there’s any shortage of teachers; in fact, there are four. It’s just that Mary, Alex, Nicholas and Will aren’t adults but Year 6 children from the Dragon School, an independent preparatory a short minibus ride away.
And, rare as it is even to find Latin on offer in a state primary (primus, first) school, it’s the fact that this club is run by children for children that makes it so unusual, especially given their ages. At just 10 and 11, the teachers are scarcely older than their pupils.
Latin, as any fule kno, isn’t a subject for the faint-hearted, what with its declensions and all that. But the free schools debate has put the language squarely back on the educational agenda (agenda, things which must be done).
The Oxford experiment, by putting the children in charge, has overturned every classics cliché in the book; but it’s worked. About 200 children from the two schools have been club students or teachers so far, and several Phil and Jim graduates (gradus, step) have gone on to excel in the subject at secondary school.
It isn’t a completely adult-free zone. Dragon teacher Peter Norton tops and tails the 50-minute sessions with games of Latin charades and bingo, both hugely popular, together with short films about life in Roman times.
But the in-depth coaching is all down to the Dragons and they take their duties very seriously. One girl even came up with her own teaching aid, a working balsa wood model of a Roman taxi meter, operated with marbles.
This afternoon, 11-year old Nicholas is helping Harry, 10, to find the Latin origin of some English words. Harry has already cracked “dominant” (dominus) and “nautical” (nauta) but is finding “exclamation” more of a puzzle. “Is it clamo?” he asks.
“Maybe,” replies Nicholas cautiously, clearly primed not to give away too much.
The other three Dragons, small groups of children clustered around them, are poring over a crossword – English clues with Latin answers – before moving on to the subtleties of translating “Poeta dicit quis epistolam mittit?” and other similarly challenging sentences.
Alex, 11, leans right across the table in his eagerness to help nine-year-old Grace puzzle out the Latin for “they run”. “You know curro,” he says. “Take the 'o’ off, then put on the ending.”
Nearby, two more 10-year olds, Issy and Pema, are working with Mary, who is just a few months older. Issy solves her final clue. Beaming with pride, Mary draws a “well done” smiley face on the work. “I keep forgetting the double letters,” says Pema, sounding a tad doleful.
“It’s a tricky one,” Mary consoles her, turning to help.
Originally the brainwave of a Phil and Jim teacher with a child at the Dragon, where Latin lessons begin in Year 5, the club has been going for over four years.
Both schools gain from working together. “The children from the Dragon are so enthusiastic,” says Irene Conway, Phil and Jim’s head teacher. “Our children welcome them into their school and let them take charge. There’s no jealousy or bad feeling.”
Perhaps that’s partly why the club is so popular with Dragon pupils. It is by invitation only and despite the huge range of after-school activities on offer, it’s widely seen as something rather special. “It’s fun because it’s different,” Will says.
Before they’re let loose on their students, the would-be teachers work on their classroom technique. Being good at Latin is a given. Perhaps more elusively, they also need a winning way with words.
Some are born to it. Others, say Peter Norton, take a little longer to find out what works. “They learn to communicate (munus, gift, so 'to share’) ideas – and to rephrase them if they don’t get through the first time.”
The hardest part, agree the Dragons, is knowing the answer but not blurting it out, instead mastering the teacher’s art of holding back and helping their pupils work it out for themselves.
But the effort is worth it. When children teach other children they can reach out to them in a way that no adult, however kindly and inspiring, can match. It can be far easier to believe that you can master a tricky point of grammar when somebody your own age is helping you. “You explain something as you would to a friend and if they don’t understand, they say,” Will says.
Not surprisingly, the young Dragon teachers are in growing demand. A second branch of the club has just started up at another local primary school. It’s enough to gladden the heart of anyone concerned about declining levels of classics teaching.
And when it comes to conclusive (cludere, to close) proof that being the same age, or size, as your students is no barrier to being a good Latin teacher, the clincher is the children’s relish for the subject. All want to carry on with it after they leave Phil and Jim. And if you ask what they’ve most enjoyed about the club, few are in any doubt. “Everything,” they answer.