I first met Ian professionally almost thirty years ago when he was the newly appointed Kent Schools' History Advisor working as Paul Hasting's junior and on a number of subsequent occasions over the following years. I was always impressed by his ability to use that sharp intelligence and seductive, Sunderland accent to get Kent teachers to travel down curriculum roads, myself included, we otherwise might not have considered.
Ian was born in Durham in the Summer of 1955. His Father was a secondary school teacher and he remembered in a 2009 FlashMeeting with pupils at Newlands Primary School, Ramsgate who had visited Richborough Castle, that when he was about seven : "one of my Father's fiends took me round a castle in Northumberland and he was a history teacher and I just found what he was telling me, absolutely fascinating. He was a really interesting man and I suppose from then on in I was interested in all the things I could see around me. I lived in a place where there were lots of Roman forts, the great Hadrian's Wall. There were lots of castles and I was interested in archaeology and archaeological mysteries. So I think from about your age, I really got the history and archaeology bug and I have to admit, it hasn't left me.”
Not unsurprisingly, Ian was the tallest member of his sixth form group and the school basketball team in 1971 and was placed at the apex in photos.
Also, not unsurprisingly, he was using his organisational skills as joint editor of the school magazine alongside Janet Brown, when in the Upper Sixth in 1972. Then the following year he was off to University of Wales, Cardiff to study for his B.A. in 'History and Archaeology' and when he was in his second year in 1974 his Father moved the family to Kent, when he took up a headship at a secondary high school in Ashford who told Ian that he had "a staffroom revolt when he suggested they introduce O levels."
Having decided that teaching was the career for him, Ian undertook his year's PGCE at Cardiff and started teaching in 1977 in a grammar school ain Kent and in his interview
remembered : "specifically asking : "When do you start getting the kids to write essays?" because it was one of the questions I’d prepared for the end of the interview and the Head of Department said : "At O Level" "
He began his career with ten years in the classroom in Kent both the grammar school and in a girls high school and it didn't take him long to conclude that "many parts of Kent in the mid eighties were frighteningly backward, particularly in terms of the high schools." In his school, he remembered talking to the Head and saying : "You know, what are the kids doing, what’s the breadth of their curriculum ?" and he said : "Well, when I came here in ’85, ’86 the only science girls did was domestic science, they didn’t even have the option to do others." He enjoyed the latitude he was given in these early years and recalled : "One of the great things about teaching is that when you get into a classroom when you’re starting teaching and particularly in the seventies, you wrote your own curriculum, give or take, and certainly with the two heads of department I had, I wrote whatever I wanted to do with the children barring the exam courses. And that meant I could do archive, use archive material, I could use museums, I did archaeology as well as the various types of and approaches to history."
We can catch a glimpse of Ian's probable classroom style in these years from the teaching he undertook with 10-year-olds at Lady Joanna Thornhill School in Wye in 2006, with the class learning to be historical house detectives with the aim to : "Draw them into a fundamental understanding of how things have changed in Wye, not trying to make them into experts in terms of baroque and rococo architecture. Beginning with a simple understanding of old and new. Drawing that out into a bigger context and hopefully, by the end of the day, they will be budding architectural experts fully understanding how Wye has changed." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-DRFJfT4WQ&t=9m30s
and was aided by the distinctive Coulson cartoons on the board and his box of archival material with : "Now let's look at the clues I've brought with me, some from the Middle Ages " : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-DRFJfT4WQ&t=1m39s
A creative use of toilet paper on the floor of the school hall served for the layout of the town and the placement of houses, colour coded for age :
Then in field work, probing them with questions and providing explanations : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-DRFJfT4WQ&t=11m38s
In 1987 at the age of 32, Ian's career went off in a new direction when he became a 'Teacher Adviser for History' and "took over from somebody who was actually a local, a teacher of local history in the archives and that person was relieved of her post and the inspector at the time was very keen to use me with secondary schools because he was a long time out of the classroom." The inspector in question was Paul Hastings or 'Doc Hastings' as he was known to history teaching community in Kent, a Birmingham man who, after extensive experience in the classroom and before his appointment as History Inspector for Kent, had been Principal Lecturer in History and Head of Department at Middleton St George College of Education in Co Durham.
In these early years Paul gave Ian a, more or less, free hand : "I came in, I could almost pick and choose one or two of the aspects of the job quite legitimately, clear it with him." At the same time "There was far less pressure from outside to do things, except of course through the exam boards where their requirements were pretty much cut and dried."
Ian had been taken on with a mainly secondary focus and dealing with "failing schools, failing departments, general support for those people who were new into the profession and helping out those who were developing the curriculum. So it was a very varied job." At the same time he found that Paul "had a very clear idea about what he wanted to do and where we were going as a team of two amongst 800 schools, because that was the patch" and "I wouldn’t say that we were initiative free, but you could count them on one hand per year."
He was quick to see the potential of ICT and data analysis in the history classroom and recalled : "A guy said : "We’ve got these BBCBs, we’re not too sure what to do with them, but we’d like to do something with data." So I said : "Oh well that’s okay. How about the Armada ? We take the data for the Armada for the English fleet and the Spanish fleet and we ask the question, you know : "Which of the fleets had the largest ships ? Could we prove or disprove the myth or the story that it was the brave little English ships that, you know, basically sat off from the Armada and used their guns rather than boarding ?" And what we did there was to take the data and manipulate it on the computer. Now that was, I think, probably the first of the projects that I was involved with because we had children who were saying : "Ah, they’ve got the same number of soldiers in each fleet, so they’re anticipating probably boarding." So that was where really I felt : "Ah, this is working, this is going to work reasonably well."
He recalled that in 1987 "when I came out into the advisory service, there seemed to me to be a gaping hole in terms of archival materials getting out to schools, so I set up a History Centre. My boss was very keen on this and it was a sort of one-stop shop for history and local history for teachers around the county." Ian "spent eighteen months actually sorting out materials from the Archives Office, old photocopies and what have you, thousands and thousands of these things, and organised them into themes and parishes. So somebody could come in and in half an hour they could leave with twelve maps, three sets of directory entries, sometimes some census material and half a dozen odd bits of archive material and two or three pages of guidance as to perhaps how to use that."
Although the Centre was moved five times, it was well-resourced and "by the time we got through into the early nineties it was seen as sort of 'Ian’s Empire'." When the Centre was closed, Ian transferred it materials online and with £200,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund created "what’s now 'Here’s History, Kent,' which is a website which has sort of taken over the local history resourcing side of things" and will remain one of his lasting legacies. http://www.hereshistorykent.org.uk/
The first big Government-inspired change came in 1989 which Ian remembered as : "If you look at the sort of raspberry ripple HMI Report and the green one that came out in, I think about ’89, they were saying there was little history of any consequence taking place in primary schools." In fact, it questioned the value of subsuming History and Geography with general topic work and made the case that : 'there was a clear understanding of the distinctive curriculum that History and Geography can make to children's understanding' and two years later the first National Curriculum Orders for them we introduced. It meant that Ian was increasingly involved in developing History in schools in the primary sector.
Ian got involved the Schools History Project GCSE course because it was one of Paul's enthusiasms who : "used to tempt people into doing it by giving them sets of books and a little bit of support, which in the event was mainly me." By the early 1990s he became increasingly involved in the 'History of Medicine' module within what was "was a sort of Braudelian course at GCSE. In other words we were doing the Ladurie over time and I mean there weren’t many university courses, certainly my university course never even broached this sort of issue of different ways of looking at the past and that’s why Schools History Project was always going to be my nesting place, because we have development studies, depth studies, contemporary history and local history. If you’re looking at medicine over time, you’re looking at the issue of change and you’re looking at factors and the manipulation thereof in very broad and diverse contexts. Now that’s heavy stuff, but that’s great stuff." The work culminated in 1996 when his 'Health & Medicine Through Time', co-authored with Ian Dawson, was published by John Murray.
In the 1990s Ian found the terms of his contract were changed and he started working in the advisory service on a consultancy basis : "So there was me as the history adviser and I would be purchased by schools for whatever the schools wanted and that stood for four or five years" because "you had the schools who were under pressure from the inspection system who thought : 'Ooh whoops, we need some support here and we’ve got to see that we’ve asked for support'. So you get bought in."
With Paul's retirement, Ian took responsibility as the sole History Advisor and the new millennium brought further changes to his role. From 2004 "we’ve had an increasing emphasis on the Business Plan for the Authority and we have this huge, forty page business plan of which we, you know, me as a history adviser, I sit in a particular couple of boxes so to speak" and by 2009 with the advent of School Improvement Plans "now invariably history and geography fall off the bottom of that list because it’s not a major priority for somebody who’s looking at everything that a school does." As a consequence he only had six or seven commissions for that year.
From 2006 Ian found himself working increasingly on projects with the ICT teams. He found that they had the money but "their problem was that they hadn’t got the projects that were getting children and teachers motivated" and "they have the networks, they have the equipment, and I have the death, sex and toilets" exemplified by his 'The Strange Death of Ludicrous Cantiacus' at Lullingstone Villa and 'What Happened to the 2.38 Tidal Express?' which came off the rails at Headcorn and on which Charles Dickens was travelling with his mistress, Miss Ternan in 1865. Ian enjoyed relating an anecdote where the unit was being used with a Year 5 group as part of their Literacy Programme and one of the pupils asked the student, Ian had dressed as Dickens, : "Now Mr Dickens, can you tell me who you were travelling with?" Mr Dickens said, "Miss Ternan". "Ah Mr Dickens, now, can you tell me your relationship with Miss Ternan?"
In this work he was at odds with his employer : "So Uncle Ian as the loose cannon has been working with the ICT, despite his boss, and we are now at a point where we’ve got a refined model which is going to be incredibly useful for the primary schools who are changing the way that they’re teaching their history in the next few years."
In 2009 Ian reflected on his career at that point : "when it comes to this business of standards and what children are being entered for and what their expectations are, then over the span of my career, plus a little bit, things really have changed considerably, although the job, the advisory job of course has always been focussed - if you’re sensible and doing your job properly - it’s always focussed on children at desks and supporting the teachers. So really in many respects the priorities have not altered for me at all."
In September 2010, after 23 years and one month, Ian's work for the Kent Authority came to an end and he made himself available as a freelance consultant specialising in history, archaeology and heritage education.
He was now free to express his views and in 2011, the year he became the President of the Kent Archaeological Society, he
added his name to an open letter in the Independent entitled : 'History, not Prapaganda' which stated :
In defiance of these legal obligations, the government’s attitude to the teaching of history is underpinned by an unbalanced promotion of partisan political views. The Education Secretary has gone on record stating that the purpose of the changes which he proposes is to make history teaching 'celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world' and to portray Britain as 'a beacon of liberty for others to emulate.' He spoke in Parliament of history lessons which focussed on 'British heroes and herioines' and the Prime Minister has referred to the teaching of 'our island story in all its glory."
This was anathema to Ian and he said so as 'Ian Coulson, teacher and author' :
'If the Secretary of State read the OFSTED subject reports for the last twenty years he would see history is probably the best taught subject in the curriculum. In the OFSTED Subject Report of 2011 inspectors reported from a survey of 166 schools that… ‘There was much that was good and outstanding in the history seen for this survey: achievement was good or outstanding in 63 of the 83 primary schools and 59 of the 83 secondary schools visited.’
In my view the Gove curriculum, if it is passed, will be a national disgrace, dangerous and unworthy.'
Six years ago when asked by a pupil at Newlands school : "If you could travel back in time, what would be your favourite time to visit ?" Ian had answered :
"I think I would like to go back to the invasion of Claudius, 43 AD. I'd like to be on the beach at Richborough to see Claudius arrive with his elephants and with Aulus Plautius, who was his General. I'd like to see what it was like in that part of Kent and in particular, perhaps, to meet some of the locals."
A fond image of Ian and so 'Ian' : Waiting for the Emperor, but grabbing the opportunity
to have a chat with the local tribespeople.
Ian's wife, Elizabeth, has published this appeal :
Ian Coulson tragically died this December of a brain tumour. Marie Curie provided fantastic support during this time, we wish to thank them for their help and kindness by donating through this page.
I make grateful acknowledgement to Dr Nicola Sheldon. This small tribute would not have been possible without reference to her 2009 interview with Ian for the Institute of Historical Research.