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Meet Ipswich Academy’s new headteacher, 33 – an ex-triathlete who’s risen to the top in 6 years

PUBLISHED: 06:02 22 June 2020 | UPDATED: 10:55 22 June 2020

Abbie Thorrington takes over the top job at Ipswich Academy after six years at the school. Picture: SPRING

Abbie Thorrington takes over the top job at Ipswich Academy after six years at the school. Picture: SPRING

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Abbie Thorrington takes over as new principal of Ipswich Academy, run by the Paradigm Trust.

Abbie Thorrington is the new principal at Ipswich Academy. Picture: SPRINGAbbie Thorrington is the new principal at Ipswich Academy. Picture: SPRING

In sport, it is often said that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.

It’s a phrase that Abbie Thorrington perhaps understands better than most – not only because she is an ex-professional triathlete, but because she has risen from newly-qualified teacher to principal of one of Ipswich’s largest secondary schools in just six years.

Until the age of 27, Miss Thorrington’s goals had all been about extracting every ounce of performance in swimming, cycling and running to out-do her triathlon opponents.

Her dedication, drive and resilience over a 13-year sporting career saw her represent Great Britain in world and European championships, culminating a spot as first reserve at the London 2012 Olympics.

Abbie Thorrington takes over as principal at Ipswich Academy from Helen Winn. Picture: SPRINGAbbie Thorrington takes over as principal at Ipswich Academy from Helen Winn. Picture: SPRING

Many might see winning a place on Team GB for the Olympics as their crowning achievement, but Miss Thorrington felt there could be an even higher calling – teaching young people in her hometown to find success, just as she did.

Yet even with the goal-driven, determined mind of an athlete, few could have predicted her meteoric rise through her new profession after starting as a newly-qualified teacher at Ipswich Academy in 2014.

Within just three and a half years, she had impressed bosses at the Paradigm Trust so much that she was made assistant principal – helping to lead the school on an ambitious improvement plan.

Today, aged 33, having been a key part of the leadership team that has transformed Ipswich Academy into a school rated as “good” by Ofsted, she takes over the very top job from Helen Winn.

Abbie Thorrington brings a lot of experience from the world of athletics to her new role at Ipswich Academy. Picture: SPRINGAbbie Thorrington brings a lot of experience from the world of athletics to her new role at Ipswich Academy. Picture: SPRING

MORE: Inside story of Ipswich Academy’s turnaround

Many would be daunted by the thought of being responsible for the education of 800 children, leading 100 staff and arguably having the expectations of a wider community on their shoulders.

However, Miss Thorrington believes it is her skills and experience as a sportswoman which mean she is ready for the huge challenge of raising Ipswich Academy’s performance to the next level.

“When I retired from sport, I felt it was one chapter of my life and I thought I’d closed that book,” she said.

Abbie Thorrington has pledged to look for 'marginal gains' to improve performance at Ipswich Academy. Picture: SPRINGAbbie Thorrington has pledged to look for 'marginal gains' to improve performance at Ipswich Academy. Picture: SPRING

“In recent years, it was then I really drew on what sport gave me to do what I do today – that drive, dedication and, most importantly, resilience.

“There are some blooming tough days in sport. Things sometimes don’t go the right way – and teaching is the same.

“It’s about being able to bounce back. I’ve got an enormous amount of energy and I’m pleased students really pick that up.”

Miss Thorrington has certainly faced plenty of challenges in her two and a half years as assistant principal at Ipswich Academy, which was taken over by the Paradigm Trust in 2015.

The school had previously been given numerous poor inspection ratings, with Ofsted criticising weak literacy skills, poor attitudes to learning and low attendance.

Working closely with Mrs Winn, she helped bring about huge changes to Ipswich Academy’s whole approach - which included a new “lesson rubik” structure for classes.

MORE: Meet Helen Winn, outgoing principal of Ipswich Academy

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It has clearly made a difference – Ofsted rated Ipswich Academy’s leadership and management as “outstanding” in March 2019, and the school achieved markedly improved GCSE results last year.

Asked what her goals are for Ipswich Academy’s future, Miss Thorrington says it is largely about looking for “marginal gains”.

While she says that might be a “sporting term”, it is crucial to her approach – that focusing on small steps forward can add up to bigger improvements overall.

She will therefore look to refine the lesson rubik, rather than overhaul it, as a way of improving students’ results.

For example, that could mean even more rigorous checks by teachers to ensure young people have understood issues raised in lessons, before more moving onto the next topic.

She also wants to develop more students and teachers as leaders, which is partly about raising their aspirations for success.

Yet, as with all schools, this year’s coronavirus crisis has also posed massive challenges.

Ipswich Academy was forced to close to all children, except those of key workers, in March. Its students have therefore been learning at home for three months.

Even though Years 10s returned for a day a week each this week, most schooling is still done electronically.

Miss Thorrington said teachers would be “trying to close gap of the last 12 weeks”.

However, she added: “In the short-term, we need to really make sure the students are supported academically but also from a wellbeing point of view.”

Miss Thorrington said: “I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy.”

Yet despite her considerable skills and experience as an athlete and educator, she says it is Ipswich Academy’s “great students and great teachers” which will ultimately drive its success.

Following her appointment earlier this year, Miss Thorrington said: “I am incredibly honoured to take on the role of Principal at Ipswich Academy.

MORE: Former pro triathlete to take over as school principal

“I grew up in Ipswich and have always been a part of its community.

“Since retiring from athletics, I have been able to utilise that experience, including the dedication and resilience developed through training, to support my teaching career here.

“I have big ambitions for the pupils of Ipswich Academy and, as we enter another Olympic year, will do everything in my power to make all our pupils’ dreams a reality.”

Bill Holledge, chief executive of parent Paradigm Trust, said: “Abbie has been a key part of the leadership team which achieved strong results in summer 2019, as well as being recognised by Ofsted as ‘outstanding’ for leadership and management.

“She has demonstrated excellence and ambition in her role as assistant principal, building a strong rapport with both our pupils and the wider community.

“We are delighted to give her the opportunity to continue her work as principal.”


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