The overriding strength of the Cambridge history PGCE

Last week the Cambridge history PGCE almost disappeared in a puff of neo-liberal neglect. Its stay of execution is welcome: teacher training needs such a model of excellence, rigour, curriculum, mentoring and reading lists.

he National College for Teaching and Leadership-imposed cap on university PGCE places kicked in before Cambridge had the chance to interview its first candidates. The storm of protest was relentless: from university educationists to free school teachers, from think-tank pundits to subject associations, from classroom teachers to senior leaders.

Overnight, a stay of execution was granted: Cambridge, and several other PGCE providers, were allowed to recruit a handful of trainees, after all.

What made Christine Counsell’s course worth saving?

I could point towards the rigour of the selection process, the unrelenting emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge, or the withering critiques made of poor curriculum design, dodgy pedagogy or intellectually bankrupt assessment models (such as national curriculum levels). This is a course where applicants are told that, if they want to teach in selective schools, then the course is not for them. They need to want, passionately, to bring rigorous, demanding, exciting history to all students, right up to 16. This is a course where trainees learn their kings and queens (with dates), where reading a scholarly account of medieval Muslim Spain is the basis for the weekly mentor meeting, where trainees read extensively: ten novels, eleven history education articles and a raft of historical scholarship is the starting point for the pre-course reading.

And then there’s the other stuff that is hard to capture. Arguing with your mentor over what work to read. Christine’s devastating pastiche of pointless “empathy” activities where pupils imagine they are a medieval peasant: you might as well “imagine you are a badger”, she would say.

The overriding strength of the Cambridge history PGCE, however, is the mentoring. The names are well-known in history education circles: Kate Hammond, Geraint Brown, Rachel Foster, Steve Mastin, and many others I have just offended by exclusion. Most are time-strapped heads of department. If you want to be a mentor, you can expect to come along to training for a couple of years before you are in a position to take your first trainee: you are expected to have used that time to read everything the trainees will read. A panel of mentors is responsible for the course for nearly all of it happens in school. Last June, the history mentors all decided together, for example, that trainees should read a particular chapter of Make it Stick, by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, at a particular point in the course.

Does this need a PGCE? No. Large, geographically limited academy chains can provide a similar framework: John Blake and Zoe Howells are working with the established Harris Schools Direct provision to build something special that could replicate the model of the Cambridge PGCE. At present, however, most academy chains are not sufficiently large enough to appoint specialists for each subject. This is why much school-led initial teacher training is predominantly generic. Mentors in schools who lack knowledge and who lack outstanding subject leadership of a stable community of mentors who read extensively, can flail around for theory, and thus latch on to learning styles, or an attenuated version of growth mindset, or some other junk theory doing the rounds. Worse, without knowledge of the history of history education, they reinvent wheels, wasting years of knowledge accumulated by the history education community.

So what do we do? Burn it all down? We can’t. Pupils need teaching. Teachers need training. Trainers need something on which to base their training. And this means we need models. Models of excellence, rigour, curriculum, mentoring, reading lists.

One of these models is the Cambridge history PGCE. Allowing this course to be discontinued would have been a case of mindless, unintentional and painfully ironic neglect. And this is why it was right that the Cambridge history PGCE was saved.

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  1. Claudia Stollberg

    Educators should be open to change, even when it takes an abrupt and radical form. And yet is the very concept of change that demands an interplay of the old and the new, the proven and the innovative, the baby and the bathwater.

    It is most regrettable and discouraging that the recent decisions concerning the Cambridge History PGCE (and similar courses) seem to be based on one-dimensional quotas instead of data that is more meaningful for the quality of teacher training.

    I have greatly benefitted from a course with such a close-knit community that allowed the integration of myself as an EU trainee. It was not only the renowned quality of this particular course that made me apply, but also the international reputation of the PGCE and its compatibility with the German equivalent of a 1-2 year course that integrates school-led mentoring with seminar-based reflection. While my own experience might be somewhat unique, the principles of outstanding mentoring and training apply to the needs of every history trainee. To stay in tradition with Counsell’s five Rs, I am going to present them in the same mnemonic way:

    Rigour: an unapologetically comprehensive coverage of the philosophy of history education, subject knowledge and educational research

    Reflection: this is delivered in study sessions led by experts and individual tutorials that supplement the school experience. This cannot be shouldered by school mentors or week-end seminars.

    Relationships: the course lives and breathes through the relationships between lecturers, mentors and guest-speakers that have been built for years, fostering a community strong enough to include trainees from all walks of life.

    Routines: in order to achieve the very ambitious goals of the course, it relies on routines that emerged from years of meticulous planning and collaborative work with local schools.

    Reach: some might not realise that almost all trainees escape the Cambridge bubble and make use of the ties with schools all over Cambridgeshire and beyond. Even wider is the reach of individual course leaders and practitioners who share their work at conferences and in journals. The reach of these conference outcomes and publications goes beyond national borders and contributes to a European and global discourse of history education.

    Those principles are not only true for the Cambridge History course, but all other courses that are run with enthusiasm and track records of excellence. I am yet to see an alternative that would justify their extinction. Losing the CamHist PGCE in its current form is an unprecedented act of sabotage that undermines the very principles needed to create meaningful change in education. On a personal level, it is heartbreaking and ethically questionable to deprive candidates, former trainees and established mentors of this cornerstone of their professional development and practice at such short notice.

    As an incredulous bystander, I can only hope that the decisions will be reviewed – this time with quality of teaching and learning in mind – and that the course will be allowed to be a motor of change, not a casualty.

  2. Maria Osowiecki

    I doubt anyone would argue with the fact that we need, and will continue to need, intellectually astute subject specialists who are able to draw upon a wide and diverse range of knowledge (both subject and pedagogic) to enthuse, motivate and develop children of all abilities in our schools. Being fantastic at history or maths or French is absolutely not enough to make you a fantastic teacher. Great teachers, teachers who truly inspire young people to push themselves beyond their comfort zones, who burst with the sheer joy of the subject and who recognise the importance of giving knowledge to all, need to be nurtured and developed. A teacher’s ability to model the pursuit of excellence, combined with a deeply reflective grounding in their own subject area and the science of learning, has to have its own model in the first place. Teachers need to be grown and developed just as they will grow and develop the young minds in their classrooms. Anyone who is connected to history teaching and training in the UK understands that this is what the Cambridge history PGCE is all about. Speaking as a former Cambridge PGCE trainee, mentor and a head of history and humanities who has appointed Cambridge PGCE trainees, my initial reaction to the news that the Cambridge PGCE was in danger was one of disbelief, followed by a quick check of the date to make sure it wasn’t April 1st.

    It may have had a temporary reprieve, but the fact that it was ever under threat at all is astounding. That threat still looms: the Cambridge community of history mentors has been halved, over two years, from 20 to 11 (see Twitter hashtag #From20to11). It has taken nearly 20 years to create this incredibly high-powered, school-based community. A community which, as Michael Fordham explains, is itself a learning community, continually evolving the requirements and support programme of the history PGCE in order to ensure that both they and their trainees receive the best possible professional training and development. The crucial role which the Cambridge mentor community, alongside the challenging and intensive subject studies programme developed by Christine Counsell, plays in providing a rich and supportive framework of responsive professional development for History trainees in our schools is the model of rigorous school-based training that education and political commentators aspire to. It delivers on standards of excellence, disciplinary distinctiveness, subject specialist Initial Teacher Education and the strong subject leadership of this.

    So, is the Cambridge PGCE under threat because it is elitist or less inclusive? Because its trainees are uninterested in all-ability state schools? Absolutely not. Christine Counsell is nothing short of evangelical (and that is being polite) in her vision of providing the best possible teachers for children in the state sector. The vast majority of Cambridge PGCE trainees take up their teaching posts in all-ability state schools. The mentors and placements for the PGCE are based in local state schools. Entry onto the course in the first place is based not on who you are or where you have studied, but on your ability to convince the panel that you have a genuine passion and commitment to bring demanding history to students of all abilities and backgrounds and that you have that ‘spark,’ that special something that shouts of an inherent love of your subject and the possibility of working real magic with it in classrooms across the UK. Add to that mixture the ingredients of a vibrant mentor community rooted in working state schools, which engages with academic discourse and participates in research, and the subject-based mentor training provided at the university, and it is no surprise that members of the Cambridge PGCE community past and present are amongst the strongest History teachers in the UK and contribute regularly to national publications, think tanks and training.

    When I have appointed Cambridge PGCE graduates to positions within my department it is not because they are ‘Cambridge,’ it is because they demonstrate time and again that they have the knowledge, subject sensitivity, understanding of the process of learning and dynamic approach to learning and teaching that our students need. Until we have the proven and widespread ability to replicate this model of Initial Teacher Education in other ways, the Cambridge History PGCE needs to stay.

  3. Jane Higgins

    I couldn’t agree more with Michael’s comments here. From the moment 8 years ago that I myself turned up for my day long Cambridge PGCE interview, to the times I have met my new trainees (most recently the 8th!!), there has been a number of constants. Firstly, the feeling of passion. Passion for history, passion for teaching and passion for building knowledge and enthusiasm in all students. Secondly, rigour. It has always been important to us that we are working with the most academically able trainees. We want them to be able to grapple with historical concepts themselves and consider how to plan and teach effectively. Thirdly, the importance of a history community. Teaching does not happen in isolation. From the beginning we have been encouraged to read the work of other teachers and more importantly join in with the creation of new ideas ourselves. The removal of such outstanding training (Ofsted said so themselves), would be an absolute tragedy. We want our young people to be well rounded, well read, thoughtful and leaders of the future. I can see no greater place for that to begin, than with an outstanding history education.

  4. Paul Wiggin

    As a former trainee and a current mentor on the Cambridge PGCE course and one of the ‘time-strapped heads of department’ I know the full value of the current model of teacher training provided by the Cambridge history and other high-quality providers. Mentoring trainees is one of the things that I gladly give my time to and encourage my colleagues to do likewise. Only with the Cambridge model of close integration of University and School can a department aspire to support both the trainees and its own staff. The reading and training activities keep us all at the forefront of thinking about history teaching and is a valuable tool in the professional development of staff. We are constantly reflecting and adapting our own practice as well as supporting the next generation of teachers and leaders. Cambridge History PGCE should be a model for new and rigorous ways of teacher training, not a victim.

  5. Rachel Burney

    Agree wholeheartedly with Michael’s comments here on the strength of the Cambridge PGCE. As a former trainee myself I know that it was the weekly mentoring within school which pushed me to think critically and to reflect deeply on the way in which I was teaching. The idea that non-PGCE courses are the only ‘school-based’ route is laughably naive! The loss to future teachers should the Cambridge History PGCE be lost is enormous but the loss to partnership schools who will no longer be required to mentor will also be keenly felt. Though mentoring takes up time, it is time well spent as it encourages the mentor as well as the trainee to critically engage with current thinking around the teaching of History. Those weekly mentor sessions, the discussions after each lesson and the contributions of the rigorously selected trainee, all contribute to a thriving department where reflection of practice is given pride of place. The training sessions for mentors are a refreshingly useful point in my teaching calendar where I know I will be challenged both in my preparatory reading and in the discussions I will have with my fellow mentors on the day. It is not just trainees who benefit from this partnership but while History departments as many of the ideas and practice discussed at these days feed into departmental meetings as well as mentoring for the following year. The thought that only 11 schools will benefit from taking on a trainee in 2016, whilst far better than nothing, deeply saddens me and I can only hope that the noise from within the community reaches government ears and forces them to reconsider.

  6. As a recent graduate of the Cambridge PGCE I am glad it has been given a stay of execution, but saddened that it has only been left to limp along on life support. By having the number of places that it is able to offer slashed from 20 a year ago to only 11 next year, the thing which makes the Cambridge PGCE so special is being snuffed out – the community of mentors.

    It was with my mentors that I got to discuss the lessons that I had both observed and taught in the context of the most recent scholarship of History Teaching, to discuss the ramifications of the abolition of NC levels and plan a completely new History-specific model of assessment from scratch, and read and then discuss E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, both in the context of how we might introduce the content of Thompson’s book into mixed ability classrooms in comprehensive schools, but also how Thompson’s comments on the nature of historical change altered the way we thought about and taught historical change ourselves.

    It was through discussions with my mentors, drawing on the knowledge that we both gained from our association with the Faculty of Education at the University, that I was able to grapple with questions about teaching knowledge, how best to do it, how it might work, and what its ramifications might be, drawing on my mentor’s publications in the process of making my own meagre contribution to the discussion (which is here: https://lefthistoryteaching.wordpress.com/2015/10/08/towards-a-theory-of-transferable-knowledge-helping-students-to-build-meaningful-mental-shapes/)

    It was with the help of my mentors that I learned how to bring historical scholarship written by the likes of Christopher Clark and Richard Evans into Year 9 and 10 classrooms, an opportunity that my students simply wouldn’t have had if I and my colleagues had trained elsewhere.

    The only reason I am in a position to offer such a knowledge-rich history education to my students, and that the students in my school are exposed to historical scholarship during the miserly three years of history lessons to which they are entitled, is the time I spent with my mentors.

    But that mentor community is going to wither and die if the course remains with only 11 trainees. If there aren’t enough trainees then the mentors will have to leave the course and the years of knowledge and expertise built up within the community will be lost forever. It would be a shame to squander this expertise for what appears to be little more than bureaucratic oversight, to be replaced by generic, non-subject specific training dotted across atomised SD providers, not least when the need to provide a rigorous and knowledge-rich education to all students is (rightfully) becoming such a priority with the EBacc.