It's a dead language, fiendish to master and irrelevant to the modern age, say its detractors.

Classical enthusiasts point out that 80 per cent of the English language can be traced back to Latin but have had only limited success in persuading British schools to offer the joys of the dative, the vocative and the ablative absolute.

But now a new champion has emerged in the form of London mayor Boris Johnson.

Mr Johnson is calling for more schools to teach Latin after a survey showed that only two to four per cent of state primary schools offer the language compared to 40 per cent of independent schools.

The survey, carried out by enthusiasts' group Friends Of The Classics, found that the main reasons for not teaching Latin are the difficulty in recruiting trained staff and the lack of space on the timetable, with 33 per cent forced to offer it as an after school lesson.

"It is absurd that the progenitor of many modern European languages is not recognised on the national curriculum," Mr Johnson said. "We cannot possibly understand our modern world unless we understand the ancient world that made us all."

The survey, which interviewed 1,100 state and independent schools across Britain, said 72 per cent of independent schools teach "classical civilisation" compared to just 38 per cent of state schools.

One of them, Barking Abbey state secondary school in London, introduced the study of Latin a few years ago and says it is now a very popular subject.

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