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Professor David James

Professor David James

Professor of Sociology of Education

School of Social Sciences

+44 (0)29 2087 0930
0.66 Glamorgan Building, Glamorgan Building, King Edward VII Avenue, Cardiff, CF10 3WA
Available for postgraduate supervision


I am a Professor of Sociology of Education in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University.  

  • Between 2011 and early 2019 I was founding Director of the ESRC Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (a consortium led by Cardiff University which also includes the universities of Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff Metropolitan, Gloucestershire and Swansea -  
  • I have a distinguished track record as a social science researcher and teacher.  
  • I am Chair of the Executive Editors of a leading international journal, the British Journal of Sociology of Education ( and am on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Education and Work.
  • I am a member of the ESRC Peer Review College. Up to 2017 I was an elected member of the Council of the British Education Research Association (BERA) and Chair of BERA's Membership and Engagement Committee.  
  • I served on the Education Sub-panel for the 2014 REF (Research Excellence Framework) and chaired a panel assessing the quality of educational research for the Estonian Ministry of Education in 2013.
  • At the end of 2017 I was appointed to chair the UK REF 2021 Education sub-panel.

My research interests encompass governance, teaching, learning, assessment and learner identity across a range of educational settings, with a particular focus on the relationship between educational processes and social inequalities. I am interested in the extent to which educational policy shapes these things, and also in methodological and theoretical questions about how they may best be approached and understood. I have published widely on these topics for academic, policy and practitioner audiences.


My early biography helps to explain why I am a sociologist of education.  Following some heavily social class-biased selective preparation in my primary school, my 11+ result took me to the local Secondary Modern school. This turned out to provide an excellent and rounded education which sparked my interest and curiosity and led to good examination results. However, the much more prestigious 'sixth form' I then went on to attend was educationally poor in comparison, and I left with very modest A level results and a general disillusionment about my capabilities. This contrast sowed the seeds for my later questioning of widespread assumptions about schooling and (especially) 'abilty' and attempts to measure it.

A series of short-term jobs in factories and on farms followed, then a job in local government in London, in clerical and administrative roles.  In the same period I was attempting to make a living as a rock musician. It was  a fellow musician that drew my attention to sociology and I attended his evening class at the local College of Further Education, gaining a good examination result. This led to a decision to leave my job when I was offered a place at Bristol University, and I became a 'mature' student (though I was only in my early 20s when I went there!).  After graduating I went on to complete a Further Education teaching qualification and taught in FE colleges in London, Bath and Gloucester.  In 1989 I took up a post in the (then) Bristol Polytechnic and completed a part-time PhD (entitled Mature Studentship in Higher Education) by 1996. I continued to work at the University of the West of England, Bristol, setting up and co-directing a research centre, and was promoted to Professor in 2004. I took up my current post at Cardiff in 2011.

Qualifications & fellowships

  • 1981  BSc Hons (1st Class) Social Science, University of Bristol
  • 1982  Certificate in Education (FE) [Distinction], Garnett College, London
  • 1996 PhD – ‘Mature Studentship in Higher Education’, University of the West of England, Bristol (Ext. Examiner Prof R Burgess)
  • 2001 onwards - Fellow of Higher Education Academy (FHEA) (and prior equivalents)
  • 2010 onwards - Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA)
  • 2015 Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (FAcSS)

Career overview

  • 1975-1978 Executive Officer, Greater London Council
  • 1982-1987 Lecturer in Sociology and Psychology, City of Bath College of Further Education
  • 1987-89 Lecturer 2/Senior Lecturer in Staff Development, GLOSCAT
  • 1989-91 Senior Lecturer in Education Policy Studies (temp.) Bristol Polytechnic
  • 1991-97 Senior Lecturer in Continuing Education, UWE, Bristol
  • 1997-2000 Principal Lecturer, UWE, Bristol
  • 2000-04 Reader, Faculty of Education, UWE, Bristol
  • 2004-11 Professor, Faculty of Education, UWE, Bristol
  • 2011-19 Professor, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University and Director, ESRC Wales Doctoral Training Centre/Partnership
  • 2019- Professor of Sociology of Education, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University

Honours and awards

  • 2012: Winner of book prize from The Society for Educational Studies for White Middle Class Identities and Urban Schooling (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 & 2013) (with Reay and Crozier)
  • 2012: Winner (with Colley and others) of the best Annual Conference symposium at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, on Radical Theory for Radical Times.  Award included acceptance of symposium at the 2013 American Educational Research Association conference in San Francisco and funding to participate.
  • 2006: Winner (with Grenfell and others) of the best Annual Conference symposium at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, on Exploring the use and usefulness of Bourdieu’s theory of practice for educational research. Award included acceptance of symposium for the 2007 American Educational Research Association conference in Chicago and funding to participate.

Professional memberships

  • Fellow of Academy of Social Sciences (FAcSS)
  • Fellow of Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA)
  • Fellow of Higher Education Academy (FHEA)
  • Member of British Sociological Association (BSA)
  • Member of American Educational Research Association (AERA)
  • Member of British Educational Research Association (BERA)

Speaking engagements

Please see my Academia webpages at:

























I have taught a wide range of social science topics across sociology and psychology, at every level from pre-GCSE to Doctoral. Main areas include research methodology, learning and assessment in further and higher education, the sociology of post-compulsory education, the social theory of Bourdieu, social equality and inequality, psychological and cultural theories of learning.

See my session for UK ESRC Doctoral students entitled How to get clear about method, methodology, epistemology and ontology, once and for all. This has been adopted by the UK Open University and RMIT in Melbourne, amongst others  It is on You Tube, with over 100,000 views.  See it here: ESRC Conference: Methods session

External examining

I've examined some 47 Doctoral theses,mostly as external examiner, in around 30 different universities in the UK and abroad. I am also an experienced examiner for taught programmes in other universities. I recently (2018) completed a four-year term of office as external examiner for the MEd/MPhil programme in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.


I have directed many research projects, evaluations and consultancies for a range of funders and clients, including the ESRC, government departments and agencies, local authorities, charities, universities, colleges and schools, all to time and within budget.

I co-designed and co-directed the ESRC project 'Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education' (2001-2005) and the ESRC project 'Identities, Education and the White Urban Middle Classes' (2005-2007). The first of these is still the only independent, large-scale study of learning in the English FE sector. I also co-directed an ESRC seminar series on 'New directions in learning and skills in England, Scotland and Wales' (2008-2010) and am part of the core team for a policy-focused seminar series on FE and Skills across the four countries of the UK (2017-2018). I recently carried out (with Prof Lorna Unwin) a policy-focused study, commissioned by the Minister, of high quality vocational programmes in Further Education in Wales - see

The central theme in my research is the relationship between education and social inequalities.  I have investigated and written on a range of topics including:

student experience and mature studentship
learning cultures, professionalism and policy in Further Education
governance and governing in FE
assessment, especially in Further and Higher Education
secondary school choice, white middle class identity and urban schooling;
curriculum innovation, creative teaching, creativity and professionalism;
work-related learning;
factors in GCSE attainment in secondary education;
policy and practice in FE across the countries of the UK
the social theory of Bourdieu (though my work also draws on many other theoretical sources).

Whilst most of my research work has been qualitative, I use quantitative and mixed methods as well, depending on the nature of the research questions.

I was editior and advisory group chair for the Academy of Social Sciences booklet Making the Case No. 12: Education. This was launched at the House of Commons in December 2016 at an event hosted by Neil Camichael MP, chair of the Education Select Committee.

The booklet is available at

See also

A short Academy video can be seen at

Current research

  • Together with Profs Cate Watson (Stirling) and Ann-marie Bathmaker (Birmingham) and Gary Husband (Stirling) I am leading a ESRC-funded project on the processes and practices of governing in further education colleges.   This runs for 39 months, from April 2018 to June 2021
  • I am part of an international team led by Prof Phil Brown for the research project Futures of Work: Reimagining Jobs, Skills and Education for a Digital Age.  The project is in partnership with the Singapore University of Social Sciences and funded by the Singapore government.  It incorporates a series of international comparisons.
  • I lead a research project funded by the Welsh Government entitled Pandemic-related assessment innovations: implications for teacher education (PAIR-ITE). The study runs from Sept 2020 to March 2021. The team spans the University of Cardiff and Cardiff Metropolitan universities and involves colleagues in schools that are part of the Cardiff ITE Partnership. 


Doctoral Supervision

I currently supervise 6 PhD students. I have supervised 23 Doctoral students to successful completion.

I am interested in supervising Doctorates that link to my research interests across the sociology of education. Indicative topics include:

  • Further Education
  • The nature of professional knowledge in educational settings
  • Assessment regimes and practices
  • Learning cultures
  • Social class and educational trajectories
  • Vocational and work-related learning
  • The education/work relationship
  • Marketisation and 'choice' in education
  • Student experience
  • Policy and practice.

Social class, gender, racialisation and ethnicity are important lenses. I am also interested in Bourdieu and developments/critiques of Bourdieu around educational questions.