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James Macdonald Cobban

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James Macdonald Cobban



(see long history)

James Cobban was headmaster of Abingdon School from 1947 to 1970. He is credited with transforming the school from the rather undistinguished institution it had become to one that enjoyed (as it still does) a very high status in the educational world.

Cobban was born in Lincolnshire in 1910. His family was not wealthy, and his education at all stages was financed by scholarships. As a boy, he was so inspired by the headmaster of the grammar school he attended that he resolved to emulate him and become a headmaster himself. He studied classics at Cambridge, achieving high academic honours and a bursary which enabled him to spend time in Vienna and Rome. His teaching career began in 1933, and in 1936 he became master of the classical sixth form at Dulwich College, where he was notable for the success of his pupils in winning university scholarships. During the Second World War, he served in the Intelligence Corps and later on the Control Commission that administered Germany after its defeat. He reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel. When he applied for the headmastership of Abingdon School, the references from his military superiors emphasised his skill in training junior personnel.

Cobban came to a school that lacked professional management. It had no bursar and only one part-time secretary. Fees were low, which meant that staff levels were inadequate, buildings dilapidated, and equipment lacking. Working closely with the governors, Cobban began to remedy these failings. A science block was opened in 1950, and in the same year Lacies Court was acquired as school accommodation. Further development came with the years. The syllabus was revised, and examination results, including those for university entrance, improved. Cobban put great effort into maintaining a vibrant school community where sporting and other extra-curricular activities flourished as pupil numbers increased. At his arrival, there had been only 250 pupils; by the time of his departure there were 630.

In his later years at the school, Cobban was deeply involved in discussions and negotiations to maintain the direct grant system by which deserving pupils could have their education subsidised out of public funds. In this he was unsuccessful, and it was shortly before his retirement that the government of the time decided to end such grants. However, in 1981, the new ‘assisted places’ scheme was introduced in partial replacement. Cobban had been the main architect of this scheme, and his contribution was recognised in the following year by a knighthood.

It was as a teacher and educator that Cobban excelled. His teaching style was histrionic, and always kept the attention of his pupils. A humourist, he could defuse a difficult situation by an apposite quotation or allusion and had a great store of jokes. He knew each of his pupils by name. He was concerned with their social no less than their intellectual development, lecturing them on etiquette and good manners, and expecting them to hold their own in conversation with him. 

Outside the school, Cobban was always active in the wider community. He was a JP and chairman of the Abingdon sessions while they existed. He was a deputy lieutenant for both Berkshire and Oxfordshire. He was also vice-chairman of the Oxford Diocesan Synod, and a governor of numerous schools and colleges.

His private life was marked by tragedy. In 1947 his two-year-old son fell out of a window and was killed. In 1961, his wife Lorna died in early middle age leaving him with four young daughters to care for. Lorna, although a scientist by training, had taken on the traditional role of a headmaster’s wife, and was sadly missed. His sister Katie gave up her own post as a headmistress to take on the housekeeping and the role.  Cobban’s strong religious beliefs helped him through these disasters.

In old age, Cobban moved to Yeovil to be cared for by a daughter. He died there in 1999. A building in Park Crescent, acquired by Abingdon School after his retirement, was renamed Cobban House in his honour.

© AAAHS and contributors 2015

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