Name: Ellen Thinnesen.
Born: April 23, 1967 (St George’s Day).
Lives: I consider Sunderland my home now, but the family home is still in Humberston, Lincolnshire.
Organisation(s) & Job title(s): Chief executive, Education Partnership North East; Association of Colleges board; North East LEP board; Advisory Skills Panel; Industrial Strategy Council Prosperity mapping group, Sunderland City board; Healthy Economy Group; Sunderland Business Partnership and Franklin Sixth Form College.
When I was at school, I wanted to be… in the criminal justice sector, probably working in prisons with young people but it was not to be – and I am really happy about that.
The best career decision I ever made was… coming to Sunderland. I feel the most passionate and engaged here. The people have been welcoming, warm, have a can-do attitude and the whole college and our partners have embraced our transformational vision. When I first came to Sunderland, I could see the city’s ambition – a growing sense of confidence – and it was timely for Sunderland College to galvanise that energy and transform itself.
What has been the biggest change in your four years in Sunderland… We have merged with Northumberland College and Hartlepool Sixth Form. When I came here in 2016 we were a reasonable size but needed to think differently about our future. Larger, more resilient colleges can weather national reforms and government changes better. While we are still working towards our vision, we’ve gone from £32m turnover nearly four years ago, to £54.5m currently, increasing from 12,500 students to 21,500; from three Sunderland campuses to additional campuses, one in Tees Valley and three in Ashington, Ponteland and Berwick-upon-Tweed, plus approximately 21 satellite delivery sites.
The best part of my job is… working with students, particularly our young people with special educational needs. Many leaders progress into senior roles and stop keeping in touch with the grassroots of their organisation and I love getting out of the office and spending time with the students. They amaze me. The positive progress I see in students’ skills and personal development during their time with us is the most fantastic thing about my job.
The biggest downside of my working life is… the government’s lack of investment in further education. There have been significant reductions to funding for the post-16 sector over the last 10 years. In an area so critical to the economy, sustained investment from government is needed.
If I could change one thing about my organisation… Our staff give their absolute all and it would be great to be able to further reward their dedication and commitment. My intention is that we will build on the great work we have already achieved through our people recognition strategies, and create further opportunities to enhance staff benefits.
Four words to describe me are… determined, personable, a bit of a ‘grafter’ and ambitious (for others).
My business mantra is… let’s turn challenges into opportunities. The one which has become a standing joke with my team is & how hard can this be? – and they do great impressions of me saying it!
My greatest achievement is… my children. I am deeply proud of Aimee, now 29, who is a clinical scientist and Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, and Nathan, 24, who is training to become an engineer in the RAF.
One thing I always tell students is… be bold, courageous and never stop learning. A valued-based approach is so important. The importance of constantly striving to work with integrity and seeing humanity in people and treating them with respect, no matter what the circumstances, has always mattered to me. Lifelong learning should be embraced and cherished. I will never reach my destination because I am always learning. Young people sometimes place significant pressure on themselves, not helped by the early demands of the English education system, but they don’t need to be so hard on themselves.
The biggest frustration I encounter in Wearside is… we talk ourselves down when we have some amazing jewels and national-leading organisations. Sometimes we don’t know what we have got and in the past I’ve seen a need for more cohesion, but in Sunderland, partners across the city are coming together to look at how we can better impact skills demands locally and regionally, something I am helping steer through the work of Sunderland Business Partnership, a collective of more than 50 businesses that I chair.
My favourite local charity is… Sunderland Community Soup Kitchen. Our initial support was suggested by the staff. However, having volunteered at a homeless shelter when I was younger in the States and later working with the YMCA, the subject of homelessness is very important to me.
When I’m not working, I like to spend my time… walking Alfie, our Labrador, spending time with my partner Dean and wider family. I see my parents every weekend.
My guilty pleasures are… any flavour crisps (depending on mood). My dream job would be a taster in a crisp factory. I would also love to have a go on karaoke, or sing on stage, but I am not brave enough.
The best holiday I ever had was… a couple of weeks in Visgorod (Vyshhorod), in Ukraine with my parents and daughter. My mum worked for years in Ukraine raising capital for church, community and childrens homes. We spent 10 days giving relief in some of the most desperate, needy, communities. It was the most meaningful experience I have had and we are returning in July.
Not many people know this about me, but… I originally trained as a nurse in coronary care and I can also play piano, and many years ago played the guitar, flute and recorder.
In retirement, I’ll spend my time… re-training at college in photography, which I adore, painting and dance – pastimes I will have hopefully have time to pursue.