The chairman of the headmasters' and headmistresses' conference was educated among Winchester's cerebral elite, and returned there as a teacher in 1968. He tells Biddy Passmore why he's never wanted to be anywhere else
'Mr Sabben-Clare sees no point in the constant examining that goes on at present, and has said that secondary pupils really do not need rafts of GCSEs' JAMES SABBEN-CLARE is a most intellectually distinguished man from perhaps the most intellectually distinguished of all the great public schools.
This year's chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference is head of Winchester College, the 14th-century foundation where he has been headmaster since 1985.
Winchester is regarded with awe by most other schools - and by the HMC inspectors, whose lyrical report on it came out early last year.
"Academic standards are consistently at the highest level," they wrote, helped by the "intellectual rapport which exists between teachers and pupils". And the pupils' behaviour, true to the school's motto "manners makyth man", was described as "unfailingly civilised".
Mr Sabben-Clare has spent more than half his life in this academic paradise. A boyish and engaging 58, he first arrived as a scholar in his teens. After three years spent studying classics at New College, Oxford (another scholarship, and a double first), four years of teaching at Marlborough and a further year at Oxford (All Souls, naturally), he returned to Winchester in 1968 and has been there ever since.
"Very early in life I was able to put ambition aside," he says happily. "Every time I wanted to move up to the next stage, an opportunity came up at Winchester." So he became head of the classics department in 1969, second master in 1979 and headmaster in 1985.
This week, Mr Sabben-Clare used his chairman's speech to the annual gathering of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference to tackle the subject of exams. Not, he suspected, as likely to hit the headlines as subjects like drugs and family breakdown but "if the head of Winchester doesn't talk about exams, who should?"
Indeed. Year after year, Winchester comes at, or near, the top of the A-level league table, achieving an average score equal to more than three As per pupil. And, year after year, Mr Sabben-Clare says a) that it would be surprising if it didn't, given the intake and the teaching and b) that exam success is incidental to an all-round education. It is an approach that delights all lovers of Real Education and infuriates less favoured schools that cannot afford to take such a lofty approach.
But he is unrepentant. He sees no point in the constant examining that goes on at present, and has said that "pupils at secondary level really do not need rafts and rafts of GCSEs" (Winchester boys do not bother to take them in history and English literature, although they study a lot of both) and has urged his fellow heads to have the courage to allocate more time to non-examined subjects.
Within the HMC, Mr Sabben-Clare is praised for his clear thinking and brisk chairmanship. Perhaps his greatest contribution has been in the field of inspection, where he has been the architect of the new system that will be absorbed next year into the Independent Schools Inspectorate, the private sector equivalent of the Office for Standards in Education.
That work has taken him away from Winchester perhaps one day a week since 1990. This year, as chairman, he has been away more like two days a week, leaving the school in the charge of his "excellent" deputy and the largely autonomous housemasters. But he has never let a term go by without any teaching. ("I teach the beginners' set in Latin," he says. "It's wonderful.")
The fees at Winchester are pound;16,000 a year, putting the school out of reach of all but the rich and the brilliant (there are 70 scholars out of 680 pupils who can, in theory, receive full remission of fees, as well as a few bursaries for state school candidates).
Mr Sabben-Clare's own background makes him regret that access to such excellence should be so restricted. His father, the son of a theatrical man who had abandoned his wife, leaving her penniless, had a completely free education because he won a full scholarship to Winchester. He later became headmaster of two grammar schools, Bishop Wordsworth's in Salisbury and Leeds Grammar, then a direct-grant school.
The only way to open up access to the best academic schools, says Mr Sabben-Clare, is by some form of voucher or assisted-places scheme. But he knows such a scheme would be unthinkable to a Labour government.
Meanwhile, he supports the current partnerships between private and state schools, while remarking that they are only "scratching the surface".
He is due to retire next year, after 14 years as headmaster. Has he never felt hemmed in, frustrated, restless? "No, I've loved it." Every time he walks the dog, he is struck afresh by the beauty of the place. And, while not all the boys are brilliant and not all the masters are perfect, he says it is a very favoured community of interesting people.
Asked if he has changed the school during his time as headmaster, he replies that it was the image rather than the reality that needed changing. "People thought it was full of quirky, ill-co-ordinated individuals with large heads," he says.
Now, he feels it conveys the image of a happy and relaxed place (although the current Good Schools Guide still complains of "a continuing tendency towards ivory-towerishness"). And the extra-curricular activities have improved, with musical standards now as high as the academic, and sport returning to its former glory.
It is hard to imagine such a youthful figure retiring, let alone retreating full-time to the barn in Dorset that he and his lawyer wife Geraldine have converted to a house. They may decide to keep some kind of base in Hampshire so that his wife can carry on with her work in the NHS, especially in mental health.
They may spend more time in London, where their two grown-up children work: their son for the merchant bank Schroders, their daughter as a commercial barrister. (They were good at passing exams too.) There will be more time to indulge his love of Italian opera and of walking in the mountains.
But Mr Sabben-Clare is not bursting to write a book. "I have written one or two not tremendously serious works of popularisation," he says (Caesar and Roman Politics, Fables from Aesop, The Culture of Athens), "and they haven't been superseded."
Indeed, it seems there is nothing he is aching to do. "Running an independent school like Winchester offers such a huge range of opportunities that it's rather your own fault if you come out without having done what you really wanted to do." He has enjoyed playing fives, making his own bed and kitchen table in the school's carpentry workshops, walking in the Hampshire hills...
"I'm fortunate in suffering neither from frustration nor ambition," he says. "It's a recipe for a happy life."