James has spent a lifetime fighting to improve the education opportunities and life chances for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. He is passionate about the role communities and local leadership play in this and in 2021/22 he co-chaired the FED’s work on place-based approaches to levelling up educational opportunities (Workstream 3).
For a decade from 2000, as Cabinet Member for Children and then Council Leader, James led the transformation of Islington’s chronically and woefully underperforming education system into one of the best in the country. He has recently completed a 5-year term as Chair of Oldham Opportunity Area, one of the Government’s flagship interventions to turnaround school standards and drive social mobility. His significant impact on young people’s outcomes in Oldham was recognised with the award of MBE in the 2023 New Year’s Honours.
James sat on the Board of Ofsted between 2015-18, and as Ofsted Chair (2016-17) successfully managed the transition of HM Chief Inspectors between Sir Michael Wilshaw and Amanda Spielman. He also helped establish the Chartered College of Teaching serving as its first Chief Operating Officer.
James has published extensively on education reform, including on the case for a long-term education plan for England. As a former teacher, schools’ regulator, local councillor of 16 years and a senior LibDem policy maker during the Coalition, James has personal experience (and strong views) on the impact that political processes have on teachers and learners.
James is a strong advocate for the arts in education. He has been a long-standing trustee and guiding figure for the multi award-winning youth theatre group Company Three. As a trustee of Music First he fought for all young people, whatever their background, to have access to instrumental tuition. In 2019 he gained an MA in Art History from the University of Kent’s Rome School of Classical and Renaissance Studies.
James is currently taking a sabbatical.