It’s been a whirlwind 12 months for Ellen Thinnesen OBE, Chief Executive of a the largest college group within the Northeast region.

Having steered Education Partnership North East – which comprises, Hartlepool Sixth Form, Northumberland College and City of Sunderland College – through the pandemic, she also found herself named among the Queen’s New Year 2021 Honours list for her services to education.

Add to that the successful partnership-led bid to Government to bring to life ambitious plans for Sunderland’s £14.6m Housing Innovation and Construction Skills Academy (HICSA) and ensuring that thousands of students from Berwick to Tees Valley maintained the best possible student experience and outcomes during the crisis, it’s safe to say that 2021 was something of a dynamic year for the nurse turned education-leader.

Yet, despite the demands of the pandemic, Ellen and her team are looking to the future determined to pick up where they left off last year, campaigning for further support from ministers to deliver more quality apprenticeships for young people and ensuring that – as the UK transitions to a green economy – the North East has the skilled workforce required to fill the jobs of the future.

“While the UK’s inevitable and long overdue shift to a green economy could prove a major boon for the region, it certainly won’t be without its challenges,” Ellen said. “The emergence of so many new, highly skilled technical jobs will naturally lead to a requirement for new skillsets and only by working closely with industry and government to increase the availability of a skilled pipeline and ensure students, such as apprentices are desirable to employers, will we be able to ensure we have the workforce required to seize the moment and position the North East at the heart of the green revolution.”

Partnerships and apprenticeships have been high on Ellen’s agenda ever since she made the transition from healthcare to further education, having seen first-hand how important a role the opportunities played in helping the NHS attract and upskill talent.

This dedication to apprenticeships – and being an influential leader in the region’s education sector – led to Ellen being invited alongside representatives from the University of Sunderland to meet the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his Cabinet last year (Feb 2021) to discuss the importance of apprenticeships and why skills and training must remain a government priority.

She added: “It was a pleasure to join the University of Sunderland, along with some of our apprentices and my colleagues from other industries across the city, for the parliamentary reception with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet last year, and to ensure the region’s voice was being heard.

“Not only did it give us an opportunity to express how critical it is that this Government ensures further education and skills, and its relationship to levelling up the North East economy, remains high on the political agenda, it was also a chance to tell them about our region’s unique position to capitalise on the shift to Net Zero.”

Thanking the Prime Minister and Chancellor for the investment in 16 to 19-year-old funding for education and skills which was promised this year, Ellen also took the opportunity to remind the ministers that it is only a fifth of what is required and that a sustained longer-term budget for further education is vital to our country and the region’s economic future.

“While it was also important to speak directly and frankly with Cabinet members about the proposed National Skills Fund and to talk about the significant role that Education Partnership North East (EPNE) is playing not only in the North East but across the country, it was also critical that we drove home the importance of continuing to invest in apprenticeships and our young people.

“Economic uncertainty and social distancing measures caused by the pandemic brought a steep decline in the number of apprenticeships being advertised during the crisis and despite the introduction of new initiatives, such as the £3,000 incentive grant towards employing apprentices up until January 31, 2022, the number of opportunities being created still falls way short of the demand to plug the skills gap, and particularly for green jobs.”

Despite the pandemic having made it difficult for employers to dedicate the quality of training and opportunities required to onboard apprentices, Ellen was keen to stress that apprenticeship provision is bouncing back.

In fact, over the past 12 months, EPNE has agreed a number of apprenticeship partnerships with a range of organisations from Envision AESC – the company developing a world-leading Gigafactory adjacent to Nissan’s Sunderland plant – housing provider Gentoo, the NHS and energy consultancy Tritility.

“Despite the challenges brought about by the pandemic, we have continued to make in-roads with both public and private sector organisations to provide opportunities for young people and adults and we can’t thank those organisations that have supported us enough for their support,” she added.

“Apprenticeships can play such an important role in our economic recovery in 2022, and with the right support from Government, and the will for education providers and enterprise to work hand in glove, they can become a key tool in ensuring the region can play a significant role in supporting the economic growth of the North East, and fuelling its contribution to UK Plc.

“So, as we once again celebrate National Apprenticeship Week and – rightly so – come together to shout from the rooftops about all of our fantastic apprentices and their providers, I hope some of the business leaders reading this edition of North East Times take inspiration from some of the remarkable stories profiled throughout this issue and re-think how apprentices could benefit their business.

“Nurturing and bringing through the next generation of talent is key to ensuring any organisation is sustainable and only by working together to plug the skills gap and advocate for initiatives such as apprenticeships can we ensure the North East continues to prosper and lead the way for the next generation of business leaders who go on to follow in our footsteps.”

Why Education Partnership North East (EPNE)?

Highly commended - Employer of the Year, Sunderland Echo Portfolio Awards 2019

Engagement with Employers - Association of Colleges (AoC) Beacon Award 2017

(Sunderland College On-programme Survey 2017)

Selected by DfE for 2021 T Level pilot to deliver the new high-quality technical qualifications.

98% overall employer satisfaction - Employer Survey 2018/19