Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Isaac Coburn (?–?)

by Cliff Turney

This article was published:

Isaac Coburn (flourished 1853-1869), schoolmaster and inspector, served five years as a pupil-teacher in England under the Committee of the Privy Council on Education and completed his training as a Queen's Scholar in 1853-55 at Highbury Training College, London, before being selected by Bishop Frederic Barker as headmaster of the St James's Church of England Model School, Sydney. There Coburn began work in September 1855. His leadership was energetic and in many ways enlightened, and with the co-operation of the competent John Huffer the school steadily improved its standard and began to fulfil its designated function of demonstrating the best methods of organization and teaching. It was made co-educational, monitor-taught groups were replaced by large teacher-instructed classes and the curriculum was extended.

In September 1858 Coburn was promoted as training and organizing master to establish a department at the school where future teachers for diocesan schools could be instructed and examined before appointment. He soon devised a course on school teaching and management, lecturing on the theoretical parts himself. By 1862 sixty-two teachers had been trained for one to six months although Coburn advocated longer training. He also warned Barker that 'unless some means of regular inspection and classification of the schools and teachers in your Diocese be soon devised, all the efforts that may be made at the beginning will fail, permanently and effectively, to raise the standards of elementary education in our schools'. In April Coburn was appointed inspector of the 105 diocesan schools in Sydney and for five years contributed greatly to raising their quality. Buildings and facilities were improved, the curriculum broadened and school organization, discipline and method reformed.

When Denominational and National schools were brought under the Council of Education, Coburn successfully applied for an inspectorship under the new authority in January 1867. He was appointed briefly to Bathurst and then to the Albury district. Although he began with characteristic energy, the work was rigorous: his responsibility for inspecting forty-one schools involved him in travelling some five thousand miles (8047 km) a year whatever the conditions of road or weather, and he was also kept busy with heavy official correspondence, examining teachers and assessing the suitability of school sites. Nevertheless he was persistent in his efforts to introduce reforms similar to those he had initiated at St James's. More generally he also promoted the establishment of superior primary schools to provide a modicum of secondary education in his district and in particular took a strong interest in the Albury Model School.

Although he agreed with William Wilkins, secretary to the Council of Education, on general aims and teaching procedures, he soon conflicted with him over administrative matters and found difficulty in working under the rigid controls which had been largely non-existent in his post under Barker. Coburn's career took an ignominious turn in August 1868 when he recommended the discharge of a teacher who had attended an examination in a state of intoxication and was himself accused by the teacher of being far from sober at his school's last inspection. Coburn admitted having accepted some brandy and 'colonial wine' on his long hot ride to the school but insisted that he had carried out a normal inspection. Wilkins was unimpressed and reported to the councillors who strongly censured Coburn. Under this blow the sensitive and idealistic Coburn appeared to lose heart in his work. He believed himself to be incompatible with the system and a victim of it. In December 1869 he gave notice of resignation 'in consequence of his resolve to leave the colony', and early next year he ended fifteen years of important service for both the Denominational and National systems of education in New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • Denominational School Board (Sydney), Annual Report,1854-65
  • Council of Education (Sydney), Annual Report 1868-70
  • Council of Education, miscellaneous letters received, 1867-70 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Council of Education, Minute book, 1868 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Cliff Turney, 'Coburn, Isaac (?–?)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

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