Ambition welcomes: Dr Neil Gilbride

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Date published 13 March 2022

Last updated 21 March 2024

When I think back over the last 18 years that I’ve spent in education, whether it was my academic work or my work on the ground, the constant driver has been a fascination in how we can use our hands and heads to make a difference to how we think and act for those who need us most. Finding a home to pursue this goal has been a journey, and a journey which now takes me to work within the exciting organization that is Ambition.

Some of my work has been direct, such as working with children with profound and multiple disabilities in running holiday camps and respite care, as a ChildLine counsellor, or during my time as a family support worker. I subsequently worked for four years as a secondary science teacher, and from there, every setting imaginable – special schools, primary schools, PRUs (Pupil Referral Unit) and more. My time working across different settings and roles has allowed me to appreciate the deeply interconnected, holistic nature of working with children – our influence in the classroom affects how children grow as young people, how our community work affects the work of the school and the many levers of influence we can and should seek to use in maximizing life chances for children.

Some of this work has been indirect. My ongoing research into adult development and educational leadership is driven by a desire to better understand the highly challenging nature of leading schools. My aim is to help leaders and academics alike to create new knowledge and tools that helps our school leaders in the decisions and problems they face.

As a university academic, I taught across teacher training, master’s and education doctorates (EdDs), with the belief that knowledge is power which should be taught in a way that helps trainee teachers, leaders, and aspiring academics to hone their knowledge, and to make a difference to those around them.


Some of my work has been more strategic, such as when I was supervising that relationship between knowledge and action as a governor, research lead, school leader, and creating direct attainment raising projects in widening participation. At Oak National Academy, I led the Therapies team, where I supervised the collaborative effort between educationalists and Occupation, Speech and Physical therapists. We created online intervention programmes for children who could not access their therapeutic provision due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Trying to figure out how we can use the best of the knowledge we have and the knowledge which emerges through our actions was exciting and transformational and prompted me to reflect.

My first reflection was that, whatever form my work has taken, working with my hands has been interspersed with working with my head. In every role I’ve held, I found myself either completing part-time study or conducting research at the same time. Unconsciously, these parts of my work have always been deeply connected.

Second was that I noticed how, as I grew older, this relationship between knowledge and action, and working between the two, came to be more conscious to me and exceptionally powerful. The power in exploring the application of knowledge and refining our understanding through the knowledge gained in our actions became not just fascinating, but a key driver in how I worked strategically, academically and on the ground.

It is this power of working between knowledge and action that makes me so excited about coming to join Ambition. Taking what we are learning about professional development and using that to make a difference through how we help teachers grow, whilst thinking hard and contributing to the knowledge on professional development and leadership.

It is exciting that, in my role, I will be working across a variety of our programmes. One day I am looking at National Professional Qualifications (NPQS), and the next, I am thinking about how we help teachers grow at all phases of their classroom practice. This variety is challenging and allows me to think hard about the practitioner’s journey – from the very start, to positions in leadership or specialisms, both in relation to what we need to do and the knowledge we need to grow. The work we do between knowledge and action, and who we do this for, is an incredible part of being at Ambition.

"It is this power of working between knowledge and action that makes me so excited about coming to join Ambition."

However, I need to be clear. Whilst the work between the lines of knowledge and action is exciting, it is also daunting. Part of the reason behind this is that we are talking about a grey space that is full of uncertainty and unknowns. It can be hard to find people who relate and want to play in this space! Are you an academic? Or are you a practitioner? Not being in a well-defined camp can bring detractors. Having a collective of people around you who are excited about the same goal is, therefore, crucial for anyone working between knowledge and action.

And that takes me to my second reason for joining Ambition. The people. Over the last few years, I have had the pleasure of getting to know quite a few people from Ambition, such as Tom Rees, Jen Barker, Peps Mccrea and Marie Hamer. The conversations were energetic and supportive, yet challenging and robust.

Whether it was sitting alongside them as they thought hard about their own concepts and content, or when I had my own challenge or conundrum and needed their wisdom, my experience was the same – we were always the first to help each other out and share our time, care and resources generously. That reciprocity is rare and incredibly powerful.

Since arriving at Ambition, the kind, energetic, challenging, supportive, robust experience of these individual interactions are now my everyday experience within a whole organizational culture. Every interaction with colleagues, my manager, my coach and other senior leaders have been deeply meaningful and inspiring– whether it was through learning something new, producing a great idea together, or an expression of care and thoughtfulness. Getting to work between knowledge and action with a crew of kind, bright and caring people is an absolute blessing.

My close friend and mentor, Professor Chris James, once told me: “Go where you feel you can do your best work”.

I want my work to make a difference. I feel to make that difference, to produce the knowledge, insights and actions that our sector needs for the benefit of all children, we need to work in such a way that embraces the deep mutual interconnectivity between academia and action and brings them far closer together.

And I feel I can do the very best of that work here at Ambition.

Neil Gilbride
Dean, Learning Design

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