Even a superficial acquaintance with England's past brings with it a realisation of the central role of Latin and of ancient Greece and Rome in the development of our culture. Shakespeare, Milton, T. S. Eliot, the British empire, the English language, Blenheim Palace, country churchyards, the music of Purcell - all bear witness to this enduring influence.
From Anglo-Saxon times to the first half of this century, Latin and classical civilisation were at the heart of the formation of England's educated elite. That is why, historically, the declining status of classical languages in the school curriculum since the 1960s is so significant.
The decline has been dramatic. Entries for O level/GCSE Latin dropped from 53,000 in 1964 to 12,800 in 1994. The pattern at A level is similar: from 7,500 in 1964 to 1,700 in 1994. The fall was most rapid in the 1960s and 1970s and has continued, though more steadily, ever since. Greek has declined in step with Latin. Now three quarters of schools and colleges in England no longer enter candidates at GCSE and A level for any classical subject (and that includes classical civilisation and literature as well as Latin and Greek). In 1984 there were still 3,400 full-time teachers teaching classics in maintained secondary schools and sixth form colleges. By 1992 this had fallen to 1,000.
The introduction of an admittedly overcrowded national curriculum in 1989 was not the cause of the decline. The roots go far back, into the scientific and industrial revolutions and the growth of other disciplines. Post-war, the decline was hastened by the liturgical changes stemming from Vatican II and the decision of universities such as Oxford no longer to require Latin for admission purposes. The changes were, at their widest, a reflection of a Zeitgeist which demanded "relevance" and rejected tradition and convention.
As a result, the post-war democratisation of school education has not simply failed to extend opportunities in classics to those who did not previously have access to these subjects. It has actually reduced opportunities for those who traditionally did have such access. But does this matter ?
Classicists in a tight corner sometimes justify their subject on the grounds that it promotes "transferable skills". I am sure it does. The confidence which comes from being in control of a body of knowledge or a logical process is one of the most valuable skills around. But this is true of many other subjects.
In my view the distinctiveness of classical languages is twofold. First, they enhance students' awareness of English as a language, and speed up the later study of Romance languages. This is strikingly demonstrated by the success of intensive Latin programmes for 10-11-year-olds in some American inner cities.
Second, they contribute to building up a rich and shared frame of reference which draws on the common threads of language, history, literature, art, religion, myth and custom which hold English and European culture together. This is a more subtle, but more fundamental justification. It is an argument for cultural literacy, for introducing pupils to the consciousness of their nation and of Europe. It is an argument for identity and for continuity. Without it the past is uninterpretable, and we wander through its remains uncomprehending, like Visigoths through the streets of Rome.
But is it too late to reverse the decline of classics? I think not. The position of Latin in some European countries, notably France, Italy and Spain, is much stronger than in England. This is true even where, as in England, Latin is an optional subject: in Germany, for example, 14 per cent of pupils take Latin. What happens there could happen here too, if there is a will.
In England the prospects for classics in schools are much better since the slimming down of the national curriculum, with 20 per cent of time freed up at ages 5-14 and 40 per cent at 14-16. There are still many teachers in schools with post A-level qualifications in classics, even if most of them are teaching other subjects.
At university, classics is proving to be healthy. There has been a particular increase in those taking courses which involve some study of classical civilisations or of classical literature in translation. Demand continues to be heavy for the small number of places available for postgraduate classics teacher training.
Opportunities are there for the enterprising school or college. A conference last week at St John's College, Cambridge, organised by the Cambridge Institute of Education, provided examples of how obstacles of funding and staffing might be overcome. A welcome sign was the presence of heads who were actively considering ways of both expanding and, in some cases, re-introducing the study of classics in their schools. As Virgil would have it: Hos successus alit: possunt, quia posse videntur. (These success encourages; they can because they think they can.) Nick Tate is chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the Government body in charge of the national curriculum and its assessment.