International insights: school leadership perspectives from New Zealand and the US

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Date published 11 October 2019

It’s not often you see a room of school leaders rendered speechless. But last Friday, as Julie Jackson told some of the most well-known leaders in the system about her journey to become the President of Uncommon Schools, you could hear a pin drop.

She spoke of her drive to become a teacher, to tackle social injustice, and how that drive crystallised in the aftermath of her father’s murder. It’s impossible not to be inspired by her story and the work she’s led to improve schools in some really challenging contexts.

At Ambition Institute, we believe that England’s education system has the potential to be the best in the world. But we’re not there yet and there’s a lot we can learn from across the globe.

That’s why I was so pleased to welcome two international education leaders last week: distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson, author and the Academic Director of the Centre of Educational Leadership at the University of Auckland; and Julie Jackson, President of Uncommon Schools in the United States.

Viviane Robinson’s work has been hugely influential to our thinking about school leadership. As an international authority on the subject, we were delighted when she agreed to spend some time talking with colleagues from our Programmes team about her work.


When you meet Viviane, you are quickly taken by her desire to do more than theorise about leadership and to focus on the practice and impact of school leaders. She expresses three core capabilities of leadership: using educational knowledge to solve complex problems while building relational trust.

Viviane emphasises the importance of school leaders’ ‘educational knowledge, arguing that this is often overlooked and under-valued. She balances this by acknowledging that it’s impossible for any single person to hold all the knowledge required to be an expert leader. For this reason, paying attention to how knowledge is acquired or shared within teams and organisations is vital.

She also recognises that complex problem solving is at the heart of school leadership, stating that “school leaders use their educational knowledge to solve complex problems.”

This is a hypothesis we’ve been exploring ourselves, through the lens of ‘persistent problems’. We believe that identifying the persistent problems, which all school leaders face helps us to better define what expert school leaders need to know and be able to do. This can then underpin our design of training that helps leaders to keep getting better in their roles.

Finally, Viviane talked about trust. She explained that trust is not a ‘foundational’ activity which we need to build first before we can work effectively together. Rather, it should be an integral, ongoing activity, where we build trust through the work we do together every day.

This rich discussion was really invigorating for me and the team, and we thoroughly enjoyed exchanging ideas about how we can develop school leaders in the future.


At the end of the week, we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to host an audience with Julie Jackson, with system leaders from across the country braving an early start for a breakfast session in the heart of Westminster.

Julie’s inspiring personal story is matched by her impressive rigour and attention to detail, which underpins the work of colleagues in Uncommon Schools: a network of 54 schools serving 20,000 pupils across Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. Its mission is to run outstanding urban public schools that close the achievement gap and prepare pupils from low-income communities to graduate from college.

Routine and deliberate practice are at the heart of Uncommon School’s model for educational excellence. Those familiar with the work of Doug Lemov and Paul Bambrick-Santoyo will know their codified approaches to routine and practice well. But, listening to Julie talk about how these were applied in her schools, you were reassured by the care – even love – wrapped around these exacting standards.

Julie was joined in a panel discussion by Dame Rachel de Souza, Chief Executive of Inspiration Trust; Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of Education Endowment Foundation, and Leora Cruddas, Chief Executive of Confederation of School Trusts.

I was privileged to chair their lively discussion and field questions from our audience: exploring the detail of developing school leaders at scale, and reflecting on the challenges of how we help educators across school groups, districts and countries to keep getting better. Kevan Collins’s proposition that “we will only become the best education system in the world when we become the best system at getting better” is one that’s really stuck with me.

Julie’s advice to the assembled system leaders was to “stay close to the work”, explaining that classroom practice should remain the focus of effective school leaders.

This resonated with me having been thinking more about the importance of domain-specific expertise in school leadership, rather than a focus on personalities, traits or generic leadership or management skills.

Last week was really refreshing for me and my colleagues. It reminded me what an exciting time it is to be in education; and how much we have to learn from the work of others in systems and organisations across the world if we’re going to become the best at getting better.

Tom Rees
Tom Rees
Executive Director, School Leadership

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