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.