Mary James was born in Surrey on 21st March 1946. He father was a skilled joiner and her mother was a factory worker. She failed the 11+ exam so was ‘educated’ at secondary modern and bi-lateral schools before qualifying as a teacher at Brighton College of Education. She was in the first cohort to be awarded a BEd degree from Sussex University in 1968.
For ten years, she taught English, Sociology and Religious Studies in secondary schools: a secondary modern in Guildford; a girls’ grammar school in Portsmouth; and a comprehensive in Harrow. In 1979 she gained a part-time MA(Ed) in Curriculum Studies at the Institute of Education London. Also in 1979 she started a career in educational research at the Open University where, in 1990, she gained a PhD by published work.
From 1979 to 1989 she worked as a contract researcher: first as a support to the curriculum group at the OU; then on a dental health education project at Cambridge University; then back to the OU again to work on the national evaluation of records of achievement. In 1989 she secured a permanent position as a tutor at the Cambridge Institute of Education, which, in 1992, was incorporated in the University of Cambridge. There she became Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and then Reader. She was also elected as a Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College Cambridge in 1996, where she remains a Fellow Commoner.
In 2004 she was appointed to a Chair in Education at the Institute of Education London, linked to her role as Deputy Director of the ESRC’s Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP). In 2008, after completing an ESRC Programme Director’s Fellowship, she returned to the Faculty of Education, Cambridge University, as Associate Director of Research. At the end of 2013 she retired.
Throughout her career, in teaching and research, she has focused on what teachers might do to improve learning by investigating what happens in their interactions with students, the curriculum, assessment processes and school structures. After moving into higher education, this interest initially developed into research and teaching on school self-evaluation and teacher action-research. During a period of five years (1985-90) when she was involved in a large government-funded evaluation of records of achievement schemes (PRAISE), she became increasingly interested in the idea that assessment by teachers in classrooms could be a powerful tool for improving learning. This often requires them to rethink what it means ‘to learn’, ‘to teach’ and ‘to assess’ and to place more emphasis on eliciting and interpreting evidence of learning as a basis for planning teaching to support learners in their efforts to improve. Traditional views of practice, cultural and institutional expectations, and external policy sometimes inhibit change; therefore, another area of research interest has been the impact of national, local and school policy on classroom practice and students’ experience. She has published widely in all these areas and now has more than 100 published books, articles and chapters to her name.
These areas of research also found expression in her work as founding editor (1990-1996) of The Curriculum Journal, and in her membership of the Assessment Reform Group (ARG), from 1992 to 2010. Possibly her most widely read work is a series of articles and chapters, stimulated by the ARG, exploring the relationship between assessment, teaching and theories of learning.
Her research interests in assessment, teaching, learning, curriculum, teacher development and school improvement also came together in her work, from 2002 to 2008, as Deputy Director of the TLRP, alongside Andrew Pollard, and in her own major TLRP development and research project: ‘Learning How to Learn – in classrooms, schools and networks’. This project involved collaborative work, over four years (2001-2005), with five universities and 40 primary and secondary schools. Its overarching aim was to develop and test a model of how pedagogical knowledge about how pupils ‘learn how to learn’, building on assessment for learning, is created and applied in classrooms under particular organisational conditions. It also investigated how this knowledge can be successfully transferred between teachers and between schools.
In ‘retirement’ Mary has continued to do advisory work with professional, research and governmental groups. In 2011, she was a member of the Coalition Government’s Expert Group for the review of the National Curriculum. From 2000 to 2014 she advised the Hong Kong government’s Education Bureau on its Educational Reform programme. And, from 2013, she has been a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the NordForsk Education for Tomorrow Programme in the Nordic Countries.
From 2011 to 2013 she was honoured to be President of BERA.
She is married to Dave Ebbutt, a former researcher; they have a son, Luke, a furniture designer. Mary no longer has a horse of her own but she continues to ride. And the family has acquired a pointer puppy to accompany her on long walks.