An unstuffy, gentle thinker

5th September 2003 at 01:00
James Learmonth. April 19, 1939 - August 8, 2003

Many readers will be shocked and saddened to hear of James Learmonth's untimely death in August due to cancer at the age of 64.

James was a man of many passions and education figured high on the list. He believed schools could make a crucial difference to the lives of pupils and he lived and worked for this conviction.

He was brought up in Edinburgh by a Scottish father and American mother.

After reading English at Cambridge, he gained a PGCE and MSc. He taught in inner London, and was then seconded to Leicester university as a Schools Council research fellow, giving him a chance to develop his interest in media education.

He returned to schools to do five years as a head of department, then became head of George Green school in Tower Hamlets, east London - amazingly, in today's climate, without deputy headship experience. James established a reputation as an innovative head and was known for his care and concern for pupils and, just as importantly, for staff. Through his career he encouraged and mentored many colleagues, most of whom became friends. He was appointed as an HMI in the disadvantage team and had a responsibility for media education. He had a real understanding of equity issues as well as deep commitment to them. From 1989 to 1993 he was chief inspector in the London borough of Richmond-upon-Thames.

James always took his work seriously but never himself. He had a gentle, often self-deprecating sense of humour and was a generous listener which drew colleagues to him. He may well still hold the record for being the least pompous school inspector ever.

In the 1990s he became an associate of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre at the Institute of Education, London, where he co-edited the journal Improving Schools. Soon after, he established the Centre for Education Leadership and School Improvement at Canterbury Christ Church University College where he designed and led school improvement initiatives. His US connections remained important to him and frequent visits there helped to inform his views about community schooling and inner-city education.

James was a key figure in the development of media education and his contribution to school improvement thinking and practice was immense. A particular interest was linking theory and practice and encouraging different education stakeholders to collaborate. His many publications included Popular TV and school children; Teaching and learning in city schools; and What's in it for schools: inspection.

Apart from education his passions included his family, friends, jazz, rugby and cartoons. He will be greatly missed by all who knew and worked with him.

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