October 3, 2018
Join Principal and CEO Ellen Thinnesen on a whistle stop tour of Sunderland College’s impressive Bede Campus and it’s impossible to ignore a burning passion for her work and a close connection with staff and students alike. Around every corner and at every turn there’s a welcoming smile and a friendly exchange – whether she’s chatting to the housekeeping starting their early evening shift, checking up on the new faces still settling in to an exciting yet unfamiliar learning environment, or discussing fresh opportunities with equally engaging colleagues.
A qualified nurse and mother of two, it’s clear that Ellen approaches a demanding role with the care and understanding that underpinned her early years as a single parent seeking to progress in the medical profession. And if the unique challenges associated with senior management inevitably eat into her precious time, then Ellen is never happier than at the coalface of her beloved college.
First and foremost, the public face of Sunderland College is a people person.
“My first career was in nursing, which is a nurturing profession,” she says. “What I loved most about that job was the difference that you can make to people’s lives.
“But the more that you progress up the career ladder and the more removed you become from frontline services, I think the more important it becomes to stay in touch with all of that.”
Even with her diary at its most congested, Ellen still makes time for her students. The positive atmosphere bringing the Bede campus to life suggests it’s time well spent.
“I have regular focus groups with students,” she adds. “Many talk to me regularly – either on social media or face to face. It’s not unusual for a student to email me and tell me what they want.
“Last year, for example, I had several lunch meetings with our students with special educational needs. The purpose of those meetings was for them to tell me what they loved about the college but what needed to improve. I wanted to help them drive change and drive improvements – which they did.
“I have a small group of students working with me at the moment on improving the estate. They are doing reviews with their iPads to see what needs to improve and reporting back to me directly.
They tell me their ideas for how the estate can become more student friendly.
“We are about to launch a strategic plan that had full student engagement. We have students on our governing body so they are everywhere. I talk to them a lot and it’s what helps me to remember why I’m actually here! When you hear them and you see them they are just fantastic.”
January will mark the third anniversary of Ellen’s move from Manchester to Wearside. During that time she has challenged staff to buy into an ambitious long-term plan that has included the acquisition of Hartlepool Sixth Form College and the decision to join forces with Northumberland College. Almost three years in and it feels as if Ellen’s mission to establish Sunderland as a top 10 college nationally is gathering pace and reaping rewards.
“I knew the college had huge potential,” she adds. “I knew it had a strong track record and had enjoyed many successes. That was important as I wanted something that I could build upon. At the same time, I felt that when I came here there needed to be more ambition, more confidence and a greater aspiration to push the college beyond being a good organisation.
“I could see it could be truly outstanding and truly excellent in everything that it was doing.
“But I came to Sunderland at just the right time – at a time when the city was galvanised. The business community, the city council and the university were working really well together and we were building up to submitting for City of Culture.
“It felt like there was such a momentum in Sunderland and there is still is. There are people who are incredibly ambitious for the city and it felt like the right time to apply that same approach within the college. All it needed was that push, that ambition and that confidence to take it to where it needed to go.”
So where has Sunderland College gone and where is it going? Ellen is meeting North East Times just days after the announcement that Sunderland will join forces with Northumberland College to create a regionwide post-16 educational powerhouse – enabling its staff and students to benefit from a wider range of resources and relationships, greater access to stakeholders and partners and access to unique opportunities across the North East.
“I was still in my previous job when the government launched its area-based review – a national reorganisation of post-16 further education and the sixth form college sector,” explains Ellen. “The Government’s whole trajectory was heading towards creating larger and more resilient, financially sustainable organisations. The idea was to bring about mergers and strategic collaborations to strengthen and safeguard education at that level.
“I had been in post at Sunderland for three or four months when the North East started to go through its own area-based review and I arrived here with my eyes wide open. At Sunderland College we were very clear that we wanted to improve our position. We knew we were strong and we could stand alone. At the same time, we saw the bigger picture and the opportunity to merge with Hartlepool Sixth Form College came at just the right time.”
The 2017 merger increased Sunderland College’s financial turnover from £32m to £38m and increased its assets by £20m. And it persuaded Ellen and her team that opportunities to further widen the college’s reach could be approached with confidence.
“When we merge with Northumberland our financial turnover will be £54m,” adds Ellen. “What that merger begins to create is a large regional college group that has much more capability, capacity and ability to do what it needs to do to meet the economic and skills agenda in the North East.
“It’s another exciting opportunity for both Northumberland and Sunderland. Hartlepool’s improvement can point the way. That’s come about through a lot of hard work by managers and staff right across the organisation to work in the most efficient and innovative ways to move the college’s finances forwards.”
In 2017 Sunderland College scooped a prestigious Association of Colleges (AoC) Beacon award for its innovative work with employers and its associated apprenticeship delivery. The college can point to some of the best stakeholder satisfaction data in the North East and sits comfortably within the top quartile nationally. Sunderland works with 55 levy paying organisations following a focused drive to expand its network of strategic partners – a move which has helped the college drive growth in the region’s rapidly expanding engineering and advanced manufacturing sectors.
“We have invested a huge amount into aligning our curriculum to the North East strategic economic plan,” points out Ellen. “Our specialisms are now engineering, advanced manufacturing, digital and computing technologies, health and care, construction industries, business and professional services, creative arts and special educational needs.
“We’re still able to maintain a broad and balanced curriculum everywhere else and we’re still keeping our sixth form provision. But we are investing significantly in driving strategic direction in those key skills priority areas that are so important to the North East and the national economy.”
If there is no doubt that Ellen’s appointment served as the catalyst to unlock Sunderland College’s obvious potential, then her insistence that the college’s remarkable progress is down to a team of dedicated professionals is heartfelt. The principal’s immense pride in her staff shines through and she adds: “The culture that I wanted to influence and shape within my team has been about collaboration, innovation, empowerment, accountability, devolving more of the decisions and giving staff the ownership to lead things themselves.
“We have done a lot around leadership investment both at the senior team level and within middle management. Everybody has a coach and a mentor and they all have their own individualised leadership development plans.
“There is clear communication about expectations and the new vision which we will formally launch very soon. That vision wouldn’t be possible without leadership and management teams who want to go the extra mile.
“These people want to make that difference and, combined with that North East passion and spirit that has always existed, they will. Along the way there have been moments of absolute joy and periods of intense work but there’s a collective determination to do the very best we can for our students and the region as a whole.”