Taking the lead

October 1, 2019

As CEO of Education Partnership North East, and principal and chief executive of Sunderland College, Ellen Thinnesen knows a thing or two about leadership

Ellen Thinnesen, chief executive of Sunderland College, has navigated the organisation through a period of significant change, to ensure students progress into high-quality employment, leading to the college winning the prestigious Pearson award for BTEC College of the Year 2019.

The fact that the college has received national recognition, while entering into two mergers, creating Education Partnership North East, one of the largest college groups in the country (for which Ellen is CEO), is testament to Ellen’s strong leadership skills which underpin the college group’s ambitious vision of excellence.

Ellen, who held the role of deputy principal at Tameside College and Hyde Clarendon Sixth Form College in Greater Manchester, before joining Sunderland College, is quick to dismiss her own role in the success of Education Partnership North East, in spite of vast transformation in recent years.

Instead, she attributes the organisation’s achievements to the dedication and commitment of her colleagues who share the fundamental values that she has instilled since joining the college in 2016.

She says: “I’m proud of the hard work and commitment of staff at all levels across the organisation. They have helped drive our vision of excellence by embodying our values.

“In three-and-a-half-years, the college has strongly connected to partners and stakeholders locally, regionally and nationally. The college is at the heart of the community, and that has been achieved by a collective team effort, I attribute nothing to one person within the organisation, certainly not myself.”

A natural people person, Ellen’s passion for her colleagues and students is evident and she makes a point of being as visible as possible across the college group.

“There’s not a week goes by that I don’t talk to students,” she says, “I value going back to the floor and talking to students and walking into classrooms and engaging with staff.” Ellen is never happier than at the coalface of the organisation she cares so deeply about. The college’s strategic plan that focuses on ‘excellence at the heart of everything’ also had full student engagement. The strategic vision is supported by five strategic goals relating to a careers-focused curriculum, outstanding learning opportunities, a united culture, financial resilience and engagement locally, regionally and nationally, and a set of four professional values and behaviours – to be authentic, respectful, innovative and ambitious.

Two of those values are strongly connected to Ellen’s upbringing and one of many influential women in her life, her mother, Kathy. “My mother taught me to work hard at being my authentic self and to be extremely respectful in everything that I do – whether that’s in the workplace or in my personal life,” she says.

A mother-of-two and a qualified nurse, it is clear that Ellen approaches her role with the same care and consideration that underpinned her early career working in a medical profession. “I feel very passionate about working in an environment that touches the lives of many young people and adults, many who are coming from challenging circumstances, who are often reaching for a second chance and perhaps haven’t had the self-confidence in the past to progress to a further education college or go straight to university.

“To see students that came from school, some with little confidence and unable to maintain eye contact, go on to achieve great things and talk confidently with self-belief, hope and aspiration, is the most amazing thing you could ever hope for.

“I am privileged to work in an environment where we can change people’s lives for the better.”

Education Partnership North East