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Ruth Unsworth - Teacher Supply Case Study
  • Teacher Supply

Ruth Unsworth, The British School in Tokyo
Read the results of our Teacher Supply research here


Ruth is currently Assistant Head Primary in Tokyo. In her career to date she has moved between international school jobs, and jobs in both the state and independent sector in the UK, as well as working as an educational consultant.


Ruth’s first international job was in a school in Milan. After four years of teaching, she had become an education consultant in North Yorkshire. When the National Strategies funding was discontinued, and her Local Authority was restructuring, she decided to try something different.

I thought I’d go for an adventure. I’d heard about the international sector and the pedagogic freedom. In so many of the schools that I had been into as a consultant, they had lost the freedom. They were having to chase attainment and achievement targets and had to pigeon hole themselves into a certain style of teaching or pedagogy.

Although she came from a family of teachers, she had not really been aware of international opportunities earlier in her career.

It didn’t occur to me that that was something I could do. I was on Tes and noticed the international tab, and thought let’s just have a look. I saw a job in Italy, and it was in an area where I could do rock climbing, kayaking, skiing, and I thought I’d just see what happened.

Ruth joined the school in Milan as a Year 5 teacher and assistant Key Stage 2 lead, and loved it. After two years, her partner got a job in London and they returned to the UK. She worked for an independent girls school in London, and then moved to North Yorkshire to become co-head of a school in challenging circumstances.

The school was facing Ofsted, and someone I knew on the advisory team approached me and asked if I wanted a challenge.

This was a challenging role on many levels, which influenced Ruth’s decision to return to the international sector.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done emotionally. There were safeguarding issues that you simply can’t leave at work – it was emotionally draining. That’s why I decided to return to the international sector.

She is now in her second year in Tokyo.

Although Ruth wasn’t thinking about leaving the profession when she moved to the international sector, she had considered it earlier in her career, before moving into consultancy. She had been working in a difficult school, with 36 pupils in her class, most of whom had Individual Education Plans, and with parents who could be challenging, and at times threatening. She felt that the school didn’t have the necessary systems and protocols to allow staff to feel supported, and this led her to look for different opportunities.


Ruth feels that the international sector offers more freedom to explore different pedagogies.

You can be more cutting edge; you can do things that aren’t just tied to passing SATs.

She explains that BST has stopped using KS2 SATs, and instead has explored different routes and a wide range of data and tools to get better information about students, their needs, and their progress.

I don’t feel that could have happened in some of the state schools I was working in. These were challenging schools, in designated areas of opportunities. People were coming in and telling you how to teach.

The pressures and stresses, for example around safeguarding, are still present in the international sector, but Ruth suggests the support networks are better in international schools.

The support network around each school has been brilliant. Because you’re abroad together, and you don’t speak the language when you arrive, you get more of a support network emotionally and with protocols of the schools.

Ruth doesn’t feel that the difference is really linked to working hours, or stresses and strains of the profession, but around having the support and freedom to explore as a teacher.

Teaching is still very much a vocation. People want to be a teacher despite the wage – they have a passion to make a difference. But in the UK that can get squashed a little bit.

She feels there is more flexibility in the international sector.

We set high expectations and targets for the children, but we are able to explore different ways to get there.


Ruth and her family are leaving Tokyo this summer to move to Europe in order to be closer to family and friends. She has been working, part time, towards a PhD, and may consider a job in academia, but would also consider working in a school. She suggests that proximity to family and friends is the main thing that would take them back to the UK. But while she would be happy to return to the UK state sector, she would be very selective about the school – mindful of choosing a school which would offer the pedagogical freedom and support that she has found internationally.

I would be very reticent to work in the type of schools I was working in before. I loved making a difference in those schools, but I’ve enjoyed now being able to explore as a professional. The tools that you have at your fingertips are remarkable. I couldn’t do that before – couldn’t be creative. And teachers are creative.

She had thought that by moving into the international sector she might lose touch with the UK, but she has found the opposite to be true. Working abroad, with her school’s focus on evidence-based practice, she finds she is always looking at the latest thinking, research and developments – something which she feels she wouldn’t have had the time or energy to pursue in the UK.

The international sector can provide teachers with a lot to take back into the UK – being more cutting edge with teaching and learning, experience of different strategies, thinking about how to structure the school day differently, and the ability to communicate with people from a wide range of different backgrounds.

In an international school you’re working with people from all different nationalities. And they all have different experiences and expectations of what education should provide. Trying to meet those diverse needs, as well as providing the school’s core education, opens up your viewpoint of what education should be.


Although increased wages would be great, Ruth doesn’t think this is the core of the challenge.

It is more about attracting people back into teaching as a vocation – as a profession.

While she accepts that teaching will never be fully autonomous, with schools tied to the Government and economic needs in any country, she does feel the profession will be more attractive if teachers are given the freedom to decide autonomously, as a profession, what is important.

We will still achieve the Government aims for a knowledge economy, but take away the high stakes of things like SATs so people can open up their own way of measuring. Developing children with the ability to think, and allowing schools not to be one size fits all. Give teachers the freedom to meet the needs of the children in their class.

Find out more about our Teacher Supply research findings here


  • Adventure
  • Pedagogy
  • Teacher Supply
  • The British School in Tokyo