After 'fightback', Classics will no longer be all Greek to urban youth

Hackney college centre challenges 'crude notions' of pedagogic relevance. Matthew Reisz reports

July 5, 2012

An inner-London sixth-form college that already tries to prepare some of its brightest pupils for Oxbridge interviews by replicating an Oxford don's office has now launched a Classics centre.

The East End Classics Centre at BSix Brooke House Sixth Form College in Hackney builds on the Pem-Brooke scheme, set up in 2008 in collaboration with Pembroke College, Oxford, in order to identify and guide academically gifted pupils who might thrive at the elite institution.

As part of the scheme, a facility at BSix known as the Red Room has been designed to look like an academic's typical book-lined study, and a group of about 25 Year 12 pupils are taught tutorial-style by University of Oxford academics.

The new centre - which draws on the expertise of scholars from Birkbeck, University of London as well as Oxford - was officially opened last week, along with a Library of the Ancient World.

From September, some two dozen BSix pupils will study for A levels in classical civilisation, with archaeology and then ancient languages to follow in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

"We want to challenge crude notions of 'relevance'," declared BSix principal Ken Warman, "and a big trend in education that says people are most interested in the familiar."

Peter Claus, senior research fellow in history at Pembroke, who himself has built an academic career despite leaving school without any A levels, said that Classics was "good for thinking about who we are and where we come from".

He looked forward to the day, he said, when "we again see Classics and ancient history taught in our schools all over the land. The fightback begins here."

At the centre's official opening, a brief performance by BSix pupils of scenes from Sophocles' Oedipus the King was followed by an address by Armand D'Angour, fellow and tutor in Classics at Jesus College, Oxford, that made the case for "a liberal education" and "the timeless relevance of Classics".

He also described his own experience of "outreach".

He noted that at the closing ceremony of the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, King George of the Hellenes gave way to an Oxford scholar (and particularly inept discus-thrower) who had composed an ode in ancient Greek in imitation of those performed at the original games.

In 2004, with the Olympics returning to Athens, it was proposed that the tradition be revived, and so Dr D'Angour composed and presented an ode to Athens in the style of the poet Pindar.

When London mayor Boris Johnson, who read Classics at Oxford, heard about the initiative, he decided that he wanted something similar for this summer's London 2012 Olympics.

Dr D'Angour has now obliged with a new bilingual ode, incorporating Greek puns on the names Boris and (Usain) Bolt - a reference to the champion sprinter - which will be recited when the Games open on July and will be inscribed on a bronze plaque overlooking the Olympic Park.

This all went to prove, he suggested, that "Classics can be relevant and fun" - although the centre at BSix may have a rather more direct impact in changing lives.

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