A 16-year-old at Hayfield grant-maintained school outside Doncaster, he is one of 137 pupils awarded an Arkwright scholarship this year on the strength of performance in a three-hour examination, an interview at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and his GCSE project a nifty contraption on a supermarket trolley enabling shoppers to keep a tally of their wares.
"His work is quality work," says his teacher, Andy MacIntyre, who is head of the technology department. "He goes to the nth degree." James is not too fazed by the Pounds 1,000 award, half of which goes to his school's technology department and half on equipment for the project he will do for his A-level in design technology. Like the two other Arkwright scholars at Hayfield, he believes the awards are as good for the school as they are for the individuals concerned.
Established in a small way by independent schools five years ago to encourage more young people into engineering, technology and design, the scheme has expanded dramatically. Today it involves almost 200 schools, and an increasing number from the maintained sector. The aim is to have 165 maintained and 85 independent Arkwright schools by August 1997.
Richard Arkwright was a creature of the Industrial Revolution, an inventor of cotton and woollen machinery and father of the modern factory system. The hope is that the awards in his name will spur today's youth to consider careers which might have similar profound effects on Britain's growth as an industrial nation.
James Ashford's ambition would warm the cockles of Arkwright's heart: he wants to be a product designer. Matthew Phinn, who is in the second year of his scholarship, intends to go into graphic design, and Andrew Moss, also in his second year, has set his sights on architecture. All three are enthusiastic about design technology because it is a hands-on subject, mercifully free of note-taking and lectures.
The 1,150 pupils at Hayfield are lucky, not only because it was the subject of a glowing OFSTED report earlier this year, but also because the school has a well-equipped technology department with a proven track record. The head, Tony Storey, teaches design technology (all three boys are taking the subject at A-level) and is on the Arkwright steering committee.
What does the school get out of the scholarships? "Youngsters get some feeling of prestige and success," he says. "The department of technology acquires a higher profile, and the awards encourage other youngsters. They enhance the desire to do technology courses post-16.
"One of the things it offers the school is to give technology credibility with staff and parents which at times has been lacking".
Certainly Arkwright scholarships are becoming more and more sought after. Of those taking GCSE next summer, 19 pupils want to put in for an award, 16 of whom are girls, a figure that Andy MacIntyre calls amazing. "Kids who have had Arkwright awards have blossomed," he says.
The awards are funded by local companies. In the case of the Hayfield scholars, one award comes from Du Pont, the chemical company, another from Bridon Ropes and the third from PowerGen. Scholars are able to build up a relationship with their sponsoring companies, and possibly turn to them for work experience, or even jobs.
It is essential that young people are encouraged to consider engineering-based subjects at A-level and GNVQ, according to Sir Bob Reid, patron of the Arkwright Scholarships Trust and chairman of London Electric and Sears. "Otherwise the decline in the numbers who then choose to study engineering at degree level will continue with potentially disastrous consequences".
That is why the awards exist. There are only two initiatives aimed at attracting young students into all the main branches of engineering at the point when decisions about future careers are made. One is the technology enhancement programme established by the Engineering Council; the other is Arkwright.