Pupils at a leading state sixth-form college in one of London’s most deprived boroughs are to be offered a classical education like the ancient Greeks to help them win scholarships to Ivy League universities and into top jobs.
Newham Collegiate Sixth Form (NCS), which opened in East Ham in 2014, already enjoys enormous success. Last year the college celebrated 41 offers from Oxford and Cambridge, while two of its students were offered places at elite US universities.
Now it is introducing a two-year liberal arts programme based on the trivium – grammar, logic and rhetoric – the three liberal arts considered in classical Greece to be the pillars of critical thought.
The course, which is currently a pilot for 30-40 students, will involve two lessons a week in addition to normal A-level studies and will be expanded to more students in other sixth forms within the trust. One of the first topics up for discussion is “From Plato to Nato”, looking at the development of western civilisation.
Pupils will study the Socratic method, pioneered by the Greek philosopher Socrates, which helps develop critical thinking skills. The aim is to provide students, many of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds, with the kind of “rich diet of knowledge” that private school students enjoy.
The principal, Anita Lomax, said NCS had a responsibility to support young people to get the best possible academic outcome to enable them to get into top universities. “But we also believe that we need to create well-rounded individuals who’ve got the cultural capital to really compete with their more privileged peers,” she said.
The college already offers weekly Oxbridge supervision sessions, “specialist schools” aimed at supporting students to prepare for their chosen professions and coaching on “polish and etiquette” to help them crack different social codes.
Mouhssin Ismail, the chief standards officer of the City of London Academies Trust, which includes NCS, said: “A classical education with a rich diet of knowledge that private schoolchildren are taught gives them a grounding in the skills required to succeed. This programme will give them the building blocks of the ancients to be competitive in job interviews for the most sought-after positions.”
The author and historian Sir Anthony Seldon, who was master of Wellington College and is now head of Epsom College, welcomed the initiative. “This is an exciting idea. I think the trivium should be underpinning all education,” he said. “I also think it’s very good they are aiming for US universities. It’s been overwhelmingly independent schools that have tended to send young people to US universities.”
Edith Hall, a professor of classics at Durham University, was also enthusiastic. She runs an organisation called Advocating Classics Education (ACE), which promotes classical civilisation and ancient history studies in the state sector.
“I think it’s absolutely brilliant. I’m absolutely all for it,” she said. “If you go to a private school, you can get Latin and Greek,” which are not available in the state sector. “Through Latin and Greek, you have access to all these orators, all these speech makers, you get to figure out how to write properly.
“I’m absolutely convinced that access to the world, society, the religion, the politics, the ideas, the culture, the literature and mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans is something that every single person should have some kind of knowledge of and access to at school.”