Roman Seizer – All hail Gove’s classics comedy coming to a school near you!

COMMENT – I decided today that Michael Gove has been avidly reading the pieces I write for SMT and that the result of this is him spending time trying to come up with more and more ludicrous ideas in order to supply me with material.  I like to think of little Michael, sitting on a chair that’s too big for him down at Sanctuary Buildings, swinging his legs whilst he dips his inky fingers into the latest paper to hit his desk.  It might be, for example, a report drawn from the national curriculum of the little-knownlandofDoingbetterinPisatablesthanUK, demonstrating that making children learn to sing the national anthem backwards has led to improved turnip yields.   I picture him turning to my latest rant-piece in SMT magazine, then placing his finger to his lips and frowning as he wonders what greater piece of errant nonsense he can offer me next.

How else could I to interpret the news in The Guardian on June 19th that Gove intends to make the learning of Roman numerals compulsory in primary schools?  Apparently – and more than one commentator underneath the Guardian article refused to believe it was true – “in year 3, pupils should be able to read the Roman numerals on a clock (up to XII).  In year 4, they should be able to read the Latin digits up to 100, and in year 5 they should read Roman numerals up to 1,000 and also be able to decipher years written in Roman form.”

I should say at this point that I’m a former classicist – my first teaching job involved taking lone charge of the teaching of classical studies right up to A level, so you could be forgiven for thinking I might congratulate Mr Gove on this latest injection of pointless flim-flam into the primary curriculum.  I was privileged to attend a comprehensive school in the 1970s that offered its brightest children the chance to study a second language from the age of 12, from a choice of either Spanish or classical Greek and I chose the latter, adding Latin later.  I should add that a once-thriving classics department at my former school was later effectively demolished by the invention of the national curriculum, which was so dense in its demands that it squeezed out most minority subjects.  I can, however, think of a very long list of reasons why shoving Roman numerals into his list of ‘things that will cause children to die a painful death if they don’t learn them’ is a daft idea.

You have to wonder where it is in the world that Gove’s advisers found Roman numerals being taught and what evidence they were able to produce that it was a really, really good wheeze.  But to be fair, who hasn’t wished young people were able to decipher the dates that films were copyrighted?  And you can just imagine captains of industry the length and breadth of the country dancing with joy at the prospect of being able to recruit young staff able to add up in Roman numerals.  Moreover, the advantage to all of being able finally to understand what on earth is going on with those old-fashioned clocks is just immeasurable.  I’ve seen people weeping with frustration outside town halls and heard the cry go up, ‘For pity’s sake – why is there never a classicist around when you need one?’

Within seconds, however, I foresaw the confusing consequences of the plan.  Will Malcolm X be re-christened ‘Malcolm the Tenth’?  Will the artist who might currently be known as Prince re-write his song so that it goes ‘Tonight we’re going to party like it’s MCMXCVIIIII’?  Will the seminal film about space and the future of humanity be re-named ‘MMI – A space odyssey?’  Will Mars have to re-name their toothsome, sugar-coated chocolate treats ‘One thousand and one thousands’?  What about the disastrous consequences for the Bond movies?  I mean, Q is fine, but Judy Dench might find herself being addressed as ‘One thousand’, which doesn’t sound anywhere near so mysterious and spyish.  You can imagine how annoyed secondary history teachers will be in future whenever they show a clip of Winston Churchill during the war, only to be met with a forest of hands and the query ‘Why is that man making the sign for five, sir?’  And, of course, there will be constant confusion for all children – once they’ve learned even the numerals for one to twelve – when they read any novel in which the first person pronoun is used; in future, everyone will talk about themselves like the Queen.

You know, it’s entirely possible that Gove has a special section of the DfE working as we speak on ‘things that went out of fashion but which we quite like, actually’, seeing as we’ve already witnessed the re-introduction of the compulsion to learn the 12 times table emerge from this unit; it may well be that they’re working at this very moment on the re-introduction of measurement in gills, pecks, chains, fathoms furlongs and bushels.  Secondary school heads of maths should perhaps pop up into the loft and see if there are any dusty old boxes full of logarithmic tables and slide rules and all teachers should start now to lay in stocks of quill pens, as there’s bound to be a rush later on.

I think someone should sit down with Gove and explain to him that there was a really good reason why Arabic numerals were adopted so readily, apart from the fact that in Roman numerals it would be impossible to state the number of sane education secretaries since May 2010*.

I was wondering how to finish this piece, and pondered a number of erudite and witty statements (though I say it myself), before deciding that the best one was written by a bemused respondent to the Guardian article which inspired me in the first place: “Today is the day I cease to find Gove as daft and amusing, but as a harmful, clueless and unpleasant creep.” 


*There is no numeral for 0 in the Roman system!

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Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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  1. Ms Freeborn has written a CLASSIC article.

  2. I am once again reminded how grateful that I am in Scotland. Things here are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination (thinks of CfE and rolls eyes) but we are, at least, spared the malevolent lunacy of Gove and the twisted bampottery of Wilshaw.

    Helen exposes their latest wheezes with the sharpest of wit – her articles are a pleasure to read!

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