I did my PGCE in 2006-2007 under Christine Counsell at Cambridge: it would be hard to imagine a more rigorous welcome to the world of teaching, and I have written plenty before about what made that course so good. What I have not written about before is what I did next. After my PGCE, I spent three and a half years working at Hinchingbrooke School in Huntingdon. I joined there a team led by the newly-appointed Head of History Giles Fullard. Those years proved highly formative and much of what I think and do today have been shaped by those years and how I was mentored through my early career by Giles.
This post is a recollection of those years, but not just as an exercise in nostalgia. Part of my answer to the question of why England’s education revolution is faltering is that subject leadership has been hollowed out by some of the reforms of recent years and the leadership culture that has developed in our schools. I want to use this post to set out what I think it looked like when one department got subject culture right.
Much of what made the department a great place to start out was the team of specialist teachers that Giles built up. At one point there were eight history teachers in the department, plus two trainee teachers each term from the Cambridge PGCE. The academic calibre of the team was strong: we had all done history degrees in excellent university history departments (from memory York, Exeter, St Andrews, Cambridge) and our specialisms were broad, taking in ancient, medieval, early modern and modern history. Four of us had done our PGCEs with Christine Counsell at Cambridge (indeed two members of the department had been taught by her at school!). Three of us did MEds during my time there. I’m not suggesting that a team like this is necessary for good history teaching, but the fact was that Giles was creating an atmosphere that attracted serious subject specialists into his team.
Part of what attracted teachers to the department was the curriculum. Key Stage 3 involved 100 minutes of history a week for all three year groups, and some pupils in Year 9 got to do an additional 50 minutes of ancient history. From memory, we offered three GCSE courses and two A-Level courses. We were constantly improving our curriculum. Giles had us reading books on a frequent basis and then using these to design our schemes of work. I remember us spending a happy summer reading up on the Spanish Civil War before introducing it as a new A-Level option. The department read about the Zulu Wars, Bismarck’s Germany and Cromwell’s Protectorate. Subject knowledge oozed through everything we did.
We went on trips all over the place. In addition to some of the ‘headline’ trips (e.g. battlefields), we also did cheaper local trips: Year 10 coursework was on architectural history where pupils compared the architectural development of Hinchingbrooke House and Wimpole Hall. We took Sixth Form students to a variety of talks in Cambridge and London. And, when we weren’t taking children to history, we were bringing history to them. Every year the department ran a ‘Cromwell Day’ for Year 8 and the Sixth Form, where we all ran workshops on Cromwell (I seem to remember doing how interpretations of Cromwell changed over time as mine) while historian David Smith ran workshops on for our most able Year 8 pupils and the Sixth Form students.
Whenever someone came to visit the department, the thing they always remembered was the sofa. Rescued from a skip, the sofa sat in the corner of the history office and before school, during breaks and after school we would all sit around and argue about history. There were books everywhere. Giles was very good at keeping us all on our toes with our own reading, regularly chucking books around in the bibliographical chaos that spread from his desk across the whole room. We each took pride in our own collections of scholarship that graced our desks, and books were very frequently bought for one another as presents. It was considered normal and desirable to walk into the department and find someone sat down reading a book, usually with a pot of very strong coffee nearby.
Although we were more than taking care of our own CPD within the department, we also tapped in heavily to wider professional development opportunities. Most of us mentored trainees for Cambridge’s history PGCE, usually taking four trainees a year. As mentors in Christine Counsell’s history education partnership, we had regular access to some of the best history CPD out there, but we also got the chance to shape the PGCE as well. The ‘Giles Project’, which involved mentors and trainees reading historical scholarship together for the sheer love of it became a permanent feature for all mentors and trainees across the partnership. We always had at least one of us at the two big history events – the SHP and HA conferences – and Giles was heavily involved in the PTI.
I could go on, but I think you probably get the drift. And, lest I get accused of rose-tinted spectacles, there were lots of things that probably were not so good. What matters is not that the department was perfect (it was not), but that it was a self-improving entity. Over a period of 2-3 years, Giles had built a team that worked hard, cared deeply and had a drive to keep making ourselves better. We did not spend hours completing evaluations, setting targets or writing statements about what was good: we rather had a culture where we all just wanted to be the best history teachers that we could be. It was an ideal environment to spend one’s formative years as a teacher.
Various things made this possible. We were a very young team, with most of us in our early to mid 20s, and we did not have our own children to rush home for. But, looking back on this time now that I am a Vice Principal a decade later, what strikes me most is that we were trusted to get on with our jobs. There were some whole school initiatives that came along from time to time, but I would be lying if I said we gave any real consideration to them, or that they drove any improvements in the department. We were led by Giles, who had assembled a team that did not need anyone else to define our standards of excellence: our own specialism and links to the wider subject community meant that we were more than able to do this ourselves.
I do not want to suggest for a moment that the Hinchingbrooke history department as I experienced it in the late 2000s was unique: indeed, much of what I have said here was true in other departments in the Cambridge partnership. And I do of course recognise that schools are different: smaller schools and primary schools will often not have the critical mass that made some of the things above possible. But, regardless of scale, some of the things that made this department work so well are things which you find in schools with strong subject leadership regardless of the school’s size: this was a department where the curriculum leader put their subject first, cultivated teacher expertise and had the freedom to set their own standards of excellence and strive for these.
I shall in my next post give some further consideration to what kinds of things a school can do that nurture the growth of these departments, and what kinds of things they can do to inhibit this.