Among NCEA changes announced by Education Minister Chris Hipkins late last year were taking Classical Studies out of NCEA level 1, and cutting Latin from NCEA entirely.
The changes are expected to come into place in 2023. They have come about after a review and consultation.
Two experienced Latin teachers, Sr Elizabeth Snedden, RSCJ, and Frances Hay-Mackenzie, are not impressed by the move to drop Latin. Sr Elizabeth, who has recently retired from teaching Latin in Auckland at a theologate, said dropping Latin from NCEA is “ill-advised”.
Latin is a key to aspects of western culture, is relevant to the technical terms used in professions such as law and medicine, and is the basis of the scientific names used in the natural sciences, Sr Elizabeth said.
It is also of value in providing a foundation for subsequent language learning, and it is valued by a significant proportion of society, she added.
Sr Elizabeth said that she studied Latin at Baradene College in Auckland, and “loved it then, and have done ever since”.
“I studied Latin at university, but only for one year before I entered the convent, where my ability to understand the then-Latin liturgy of the Eucharist and the Office, and the beautiful chant and polyphonic music of the Church’s tradition, was a gift.”
Sr Elizabeth said that there is a requirement that seminarians “have some knowledge of Latin”, and those going on to higher studies need more than a basic level of proficiency.
“I have enjoyed teaching Latin over the last ten or eleven years at Good Shepherd College, now Te Kupenga Catholic Theological College, and students have been glad to discover the meaning of the Latin Mass parts such as the Gloria, the Agnus Dei and the Sanctus, Latin motets such as the Salve Regina, and the names of encyclicals they encounter in seminary life and theological study.”
Sr Elizabeth said that, in general, learning Latin is “a training of mental muscles, a foundation for a study of all other languages, including our own, because with its rigorous systems it teaches how language works”.
“It involves a lot of memorisation, which is not a popular activity nowa-days, and is difficult for students whose gifts are in more artistic, numeric, scientific or practical fields, and has, therefore, a reputation for being elitist, but it grounds an extensive English vocabulary, which is useful for life.” n
Frances Hay-Mackenzie first learned Latin at St Mary’s College, Ponsonby.
After completing an MA (Hons) in Latin at the University of Auckland, as well as MA (Hons) degrees in Greek and English, she studied to be a teacher, and was teacher-in-charge of Latin and Classics at Epsom Girls’ Grammar School for seven years. After completing a law degree and working in commercial litigation and employment law for 14 years, she returned to teaching, and was the first female Latin/Classics teacher at Auckland Grammar School, where she still teaches.
Mrs Hay-Mackenzie said she is “very disappointed at the Government’s decision to remove Latin from the NCEA Qualification Framework from 2023”.
“I think the decision is short-sighted, inward-looking and demonstrates a surprising lack of vision.”
She said there are “long-term, practical benefits of the linguistic and critical thinking skills that Latin teaches. I saw that first-hand as a lawyer”.
“I continually impress upon my students the importance of literacy in today’s world, both oral and written.
“We have recently heard that literacy levels in New Zealand have plummeted over the last few decades. This seems an apt moment for principals, educators and Government officials to take another look at Latin with fresh eyes. There is no question in my mind that the study of Latin enhances literacy.”
Mrs Hay-Mackenzie said the Government’s decision to remove Latin
from the NCEA qualifications framework also cuts off a part of who we are.
“The historical importance of Roman civilisation in the cultural inheritance of Western Europe is an important part of contemporary New Zealand culture,” she said.
At Auckland Grammar School, the opportunity for students to learn Latin is enshrined in the school’s charter.
Mrs Hay-Mackenzie said that the principals of Auckland Grammar School with whom she has worked, John Morris and Tim O’Connor, and the school’s board, have been, and are, very supportive of Latin and Classics.
“[However], as a consequence of the Government’s decision, Latin is likely to be offered at very few New Zealand secondary schools in the future, even at a junior level, especially if the subject no longer has any standing or formal recognition on the New Zealand NZQA Qualifications Framework,” she said.
“A few private schools that offer international qualifications, or a traditional school (like Auckland Grammar School) will likely continue to teach Latin, with the result that the subject will be viewed as ‘elitist’, which, ironically, is a pejorative and quite erroneous label that Latin has had to contend with in the past.
“I grew up in Mount Roskill . . . Chances are that, if I were a youngster from Mount Roskill approaching secondary school now, my opportunities to learn Latin at school would be next to none, given that most state-integrated Catholic and state schools seem to have already abandoned the teaching of Latin, or are likely to do so, once the Government’s decision comes into effect.
“In a nutshell, I think the Government’s decision is a huge backward step and a tragedy for New Zealand’s education system.”
Ministry of Education group manager secondary tertiary Jackie Talbot told NZ Catholic that the NCEA Level 1 subject list was redeveloped as part of the NCEA Change Package to “ensure schools have access to a broad range of foundational qualifications to offer their students”.
“As part of this process, we released a provisional subject list in early 2020 for public engagement. We received 3615 formal responses to our online survey on the Provisional Subject List, including 916 that mentioned Latin,” Ms Talbot said. “After considering public feedback, we decided to remove Latin from NCEA, as it had low and steadily declining enrolments.”
Ms Talbot said that, between 2014 and 2018, no more than 200 students were enrolled in 14 or more credits in any level of NCEA Latin per year.
“If enrolments had continued to decline, Latin would have ceased to be viable to support without highly costly interventions, alongside the required development and maintenance costs,” she said.
Figures provided by the ministry showed 198 students took Latin at NCEA levels in 2014. The figures for the next four years were 167 (2015), 160 (2016), 159 (2017) and 176 (2018). The numbers taking Latin at NCEA level three ranged between 29 and 22 over this period.
Asked by NZ Catholic about the number of students studying Latin in New Zealand schools outside of NCEA, the ministry’s response was that it does not hold this data itself.
But it did provide statistics for subject enrolments self-reported by secondary schools between 2006 and 2020, including for years 9 and 10. (This came with a note that accuracy could not be guaranteed.)
The figures for those studying Latin showed a high of 2339 in 2008, dropping to 1087 students in 2020.
The language subject which showed the highest percentage growth from 2006 to 2020 was Chinese, which went from 1728 students in 2006 to 6368 in 2020. Student numbers studying Te Reo Māori grew from 22,941 in 2006 to 30,626 in 2020.
The numbers studying French and German over this time period dropped markedly, (27,614 to 14,652, and 6686 to 2773, respectively). But the number studying Spanish increased by some 60 per cent (8100 to 13,237).