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Secondary PGCE : History

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One of the biggest advantages [of the Cambridge PGCE] was the exposure to teachers and other speakers involved in the cutting edge of history teaching. Our course leader actively sought out a really wide range of contrasting views on history education and made us engage with them all through hearing them speak or reading their work.

coloured pens

Who is this course for?

Trainee teachers at Cambridge come from a wide variety of backgrounds:

Rachel: I worked in publishing for six years before applying to do the PGCE. It was the best decision I could have made. The history PGCE course was the most rewarding year of my working life. Teaching is both an academic and creative discipline and the course gets the balance just right; whilst being very academically rigorous it is also extremely practical. I always came away from both Faculty sessions and mentor meetings buzzing with ideas that I couldn't wait to get into the classroom and try! The mentoring I received was outstanding. I felt very well supported throughout the course and the mentoring process was a constructive dialogue rather than simply being told what to do. The course doesn't try and force you to conform to a single model of a 'good' history teacher– whilst you receive a lot of guidance, you are encouraged to think for yourself and develop your own teaching personality in the classroom. The course does so much more than simply train you how to survive in the classroom – it inspires and equips you to participate in and shape debate within the education community. I now work in a comprehensive near Cambridge and have recently become a mentor. I have also now completed my MEd with the Faculty of Education, researching ways of getting Year 9 to read real historical scholarship.

Robin: After reading history at Cambridge, I found the PGCE course a perfect preparation for life in the classroom. But the course is not just about how to stand in front of a class. It challenged me to think about what studying history really means – probably the first time I had done this, despite my degree and my MPhil. Fellow trainees, although diverse in ages and backgrounds, were similarly passionate about history and how we could encourage pupils to share our enthusiasm. The ‘theory’ of teaching history was not dryly delivered in lecture halls, but in active sessions that valued our input and ideas. The vast majority of the PGCE, however, was spent within schools where mentors (experienced history teachers) helped develop our teaching. I valued the opportunity this provided to be creative and take calculated risks. In my 1C (an extended research assignment), for instance, I encouraged pupils to write historical narrative, something that goes against the grain of current practice. The course was naturally tiring, but the reward of seeing pupils enthused by my lessons compensated for this! I now teach at County Upper School (a 13-18 comprehensive) in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

James: When I was solicitor in Leeds, specialising in corporate tax, I had the opportunity to mentor students at a local comprehensive school. I soon realised I cared more about what I was doing there than I did in my real job. So, I took the plunge and applied for a PGCE in Cambridge. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The course was an inspiration: intense, thoroughly enjoyable and intellectually challenging at every stage. I learned more about the nature of History in one year than I had during my entire degree, and I entered the profession confident that I had had the best possible training. An unexpected aspect of teaching has been just how creative it allows you to be, which I love; the job is fun! There is also a fantastic community of history teachers who love their work, relish the chance to work with each other and who generously provide support, advice and career opportunities. Teaching rewards hard work and enthusiasm, allowing you to carve out your own career path. Since leaving, I have developed my career rapidly through writing articles, mentoring trainee teachers or training other teachers and mentors. I am now  Assistant Principal. 

Helen: I wanted to be a teacher since a young age and after reading History at York I decided that Cambridge would be the ideal place to train. The course is rigorous, engaging and never dull. Our course tutors gave exceptional guidance so you never felt alone. The staff at Cambridge really inspire you to be creative and adventurous so schools love it when Cambridge trainees arrive because we always have lots of enthusiasm. Even after a year of teaching, I still turn to my course notes and reading if I need inspiration or motivation to try something new. As the course is demanding, you quickly build good relationships with your fellow trainees and even now we still meet up for curry. The Cambridge Partnership has a variety of schools so you’ll experience a range of school systems and teaching styles. My first placement was at Stanground College in Peterborough and I liked it so much that I am still working there and am now Head of History! Teaching is a tiring job and can be stressful but Cambridge trains you well to focus on the history and to ensure students get as much out of your lessons as possible. Every day is different at school and you experiment with such a wide range of mediums and tools, from film to newspapers to creating wikis, that you are always pushing yourself forward.'

Hannah: I read History at King's College London. I wanted a career that would both stretch me intellectually and enable me to interact with people. I haven’t been let down and I’m enjoying the challenge more than I could have imagined. The Cambridge PGCE was inspiring and challenging. Through the carefully crafted sessions and wonderful support from the course tutors we were able to develop our understanding of the discipline as well as reflect on how best to enable pupils to enjoy the subject. The most rewarding part for me was innovating with ways to encourage pupils to read for pleasure. Seeing the joy on their faces when they had read ‘a real historian’s’ chapter and identified the theme of it was something I shall never forget. The year is intensive and requires complete dedication, but the rewards more than make up for it. The PGCE prepared me well for the challenges of the NQT year and it felt like a natural progression when I entered my current school. I have relished the opportunity to help pupils to ‘become historians’ this year, encouraging them to design their own enquiries, something which the PGCE gave me the skills and confidence to try. The course instilled in us the need for peer support and this is another of its strengths. I am still in touch with our group of trainees and we regularly meet up to discuss lessons and reflect together. This is a photograph of me with Helen. We did the course together and we then completed the MEd together (in our second year of teaching). Two years later, the two of us were invited to give our first workshop for other history teachers at a national conference on history education in Leeds. Nerve-wracking but very exciting!'

PGCE student group

What sort of topics and subject will I explore?

Long live the essay! The course places strong emphasis on literacy and language, from helping pupils to debate clearly and cogently to helping them to write well-structured and well-argued extended essays. The history classroom is also a place where pupils for whom English is an additional language ought to do important work towards becoming fluent, confident speakers and writers of English.

Saving the chronologically lost. Pupils need frameworks such as narratives and layers of knowledge if they are to find their way around the past, frame good questions, persevere with problems and enjoy important debates. The course teaches you how to ensure that pupils build strong knowledge and secure chronology. You will learn about how memory works and how to make pupils use their memories better. Thoroughness, clarity and impact in your oral performance will be key.

Interpretations of the past: do you see what I see? From a mural in Northern Ireland to a novel by Hilary Mantel, from a scholarly work by a modern historian to a feature film, human beings construct endless, new representations of the past. The National Curriculum has included the study of 'interpretations of history' since its inception in 1991 and this focus is prominent again in its 2014 version. Pupils need to understand how and why individuals and societies construct and remember the past, and why it matters that thoughtful conversations between past and present continue. From war memorials to a National Trust property to a history textbook in Cyprus, what are all these depictions for? How are they constructed? Why do they differ? Why do people argue about them? And how do we fascinate pupils with such questions?

How should the conceptual structure of the discipline shape teaching and assessment? What does it mean to assess pupils' progress in evidential thinking or causal reasoning? Can we do it? Should we do it? What has gone wrong in past efforts to do it? How do different history teachers do it now? Do pupils get better at history when we focus on these things? What ideas do children have about historical change and continuity? Can we find out? And if so, how can or should this make our teaching better?

What is the relationship between the study of history and the arts? Did 17th century Protestants really hate art? What can Islamic art tell us? How can we use music as an historical source? Was Byrd's music a lament or a protest? How did the Chartists use songs and poems? How did Civil Rights campaigners experience music? Be prepared: if your cultural and religious history is lousy, you will be packed off with CDs of music by Byrd and Tallis so that you can fill your head with the sound of the sixteenth century. Then you've got to work out how to fascinate pupils with it.

What didn't happen? Counterfactual history has a long tradition in school history classrooms, with much imaginative work published by history teachers who have explored its potential. Could you design a counterfactual game? How do these games build knowledge and curiosity? How do they improve pupils' historical thinking?

PGCE study group Faculty of Education Cambridge

How will I learn to teach history well?

by doing it. You will be in schools for most of the course. We also get you teaching whole classes straightaway. This means that you will have plenty of real experience to reflect on and talk about, and we can diagnose your strengths and weaknesses early. That way, your school-based mentor can work with you to create targets and negotiate your personalised programme to help you improve.

by talking about your own practice, reflecting on it and analysing it with others. Learning to teach all pupils really well is extremely challenging. You cannot see everything you need to see if you are on your own. So you will talk about your practice with other trainees, with your mentor in school, with course tutors and with other history teachers. You will learn to use supportive criticism from others. You will learn to evaluate your practice by looking at the quality of your pupils’ historical knowledge and historical thinking using different types of assessment and research.

by experimenting and innovating in order to solve challenging problems. Not all pupils want to learn history. Some don't see the point. Many love it, but find it extremely hard. They can easily be discouraged. What are you going to do about those problems? A basic ethic of the Cambridge history course is that history is vital for all pupils, so giving up or copping out of teaching the pupils who struggle is not an option. And 'dumbing down' is not acceptable either. There are also other challenges. These can be intellectual, practical or moral: How do I help a pupil to argue rigorously? How do I get an under-achieving sixth former to read widely? Can 13-year-olds understand the concept of evidence? Does it matter? What should we prioritise when making tough content choices within limited curriculum time? How can I convince pupils that learning about the conflict between Church and State in the 12th to 13th centuries matters? How should we handle students' emotional distress or anger when dealing with sensitive and controversial issues in the past?

by discovering how others have done it and joining their debates. History teachers do not work in isolation. They are part of a vast professional community containing many determined history teachers trying to solve problems. History teachers have worked for decades to try to make more pupils more knowledgeable about the past and fascinated by its study. That community is also dependent on other, overlapping communities, such as academic historians, education researchers, archaeologists and many others from museums to the British Film Institute to local history societies to international organisations working with history teachers in post-conflict regions of the world. These communities generate debate, ideas and research. To become part of the profession of history teaching is to get to know those debates, and, as soon as possible, to join them.
This is why you will be expected to read a great deal, and also why you will be trained to write rigorously and engagingly. You need not only to produce exciting, high quality resources for your pupils; you must learn to write for a range of other audiences.
You will also observe other history teachers at work, both in your two placement schools and in our other Partnership schools that you will visit as part of your training.

By becoming more and more knowledgeable about history. One of the most damaging myths about history teaching in Britain today is that history teachers don’t care about knowledge. The opposite is the case. No matter how many lively, fun approaches you try, your teaching will not acquire rigour, depth, insight and command if you are not steeped in up-to-date knowledge of your topics. A feature of the Cambridge history course is a requirement for trainees to begin a career-long professional habit of reading widely.
A unique entitlement of our course is that all trainees should read and discuss works of historical scholarship by academic historians with their mentors, in school. Our mentors believe in modelling regular reading as part of their professional role.


How will this course prepare me for positions of leadership?

The Cambridge History PGCE aims to develop leaders in history education, whether as curriculum leaders in a school or leaders nationally and internationally through research, writing and training. Central to this mission is the enormous challenge of bringing rigorous, demanding history to the full ability range, especially those students from disadvantaged backgrounds who find the subject very hard. Cambridge PGCE history trainees are preparing for a career in which they will lead teams and promote wide debate on how best to help struggling pupils face up to difficult academic work rather than avoid it, and how to give such pupils the powerful knowledge that will change their lives. Claire shares her experience of using her PGCE in her journey into leadership:

'The Cambridge PGCE course was hard work, but the rewards have been enormous. The course was excellent. It perfectly balanced theory with practice. In two contrasting placement schools, my mentors not only supported my developing practice, they made me talk and think about it in ways that gave me the intellectual confidence to lead other teachers.

I was committed to the idea of ‘History for all’ prior to starting the PGCE. However, it was the emphasis on this throughout the course and my experience with a disaffected Year 9 class during my second placement that helped me decide to work in an inner London school. The pedagogical grounding that the PGCE developed enabled me to teach in a diverse and challenging setting.  The focus on historical knowledge and building a really deep understanding of the discipline also prepared us for leadership. The Cambridge History PGCE does far more than equip you to ‘survive’ your NQT year; it prepares you for leadership in subject teaching. We were constantly told that we were expected to become leaders in raising standards, nationally, in history education. We were expected to challenge norms, redefine high standards, press for higher gold standards. In 2012, I was appointed Lead Teacher of History at a new academy in north-west London. In planning the curriculum and departmental training, I often return to the articles I read and ideas I developed during my Cambridge PGCE.  Having trained on a PGCE that demands sophisticated thinking about children’s historical learning, and having refined that historical thinking through the Cambridge ‘Researching Practice’ MEd, I was able to approach my subject leadership role with confidence.'

Student studying

How does this fit in with the MEd?

Michael followed the Researching Practice MEd course immediately after having completed his PGCE:

'After reading History at Cambridge, the History PGCE offered me the balance between practical training and theoretical reflection that I sought, and I enjoyed the analytical focus of the course. This culminated in the research project I conducted in school on how A-Level students progress in their understanding of historical arguments. It was therefore an easy decision for me to continue to the MEd in Researching Practice which I completed during my NQT year. Throughout my PGCE I worked with my in-school mentors who gave me the flexibility I needed to think about how students progress in history and, as a NQT, I was lucky enough to find work in a history department that continued to offer me this support. I was able to find time to read widely for my MEd and produce my thesis.

My research focussed on how my Year 8 students understood the historical concept of 'revolution', which involved keeping lesson observations, studying the students’ work and conducting interviews. My supervisor, colleagues at school and former PGCE peers were all keen to discuss my work, and I left the MEd feeling much more closely linked with the history teaching community, both in Cambridgeshire and beyond. Having caught the research bug, I decided to continue my studies by pursuing a part-time PhD with the Faculty of Education. Both the research project during the PGCE and my MEd thesis have improved my ability to analyse my own teaching and the way my students learn.'

Sarah followed the Researching Practice MEd two years after having completed the PGCE course.

'I did the PGCE course at Cambridge after completing a Masters in Women’s History at London Metropolitan University. Having enjoyed the PGCE so much, I decided to complete my MEd with the Faculty of Education. It is a natural extension of the PGCE course by amalgamating your practice as a teacher, your thinking about historical issues and broader understandings of pedagogical concern. It certainly made me more reflective about my practice. I used story-telling to develop pupils’ chronological understanding and knowledge, and then got pupils to write narratives linking nineteenth-century Britain and nineteenth-century India. I analysed these as a way of exploring how story helps pupils to make connections, retain knowledge and make meaning out of complex, otherwise disparate events. My approach encouraged my department to reflect on new ways of structuring the history curriculum.

Throughout the MEd, the support of my history specialist supervisor, colleagues at school and fellow researchers has been immense. It has transformed my approach towards planning and teaching.’

Sarah is now Head of History at Comberton Village College. A shortened version of Sarah’s research into using story has been published in Teaching History, 136. You can join the Historical Association and read Teaching History on

For more information, visit the Master of Education (MEd) page.