Founders’ Day 2023: Inspiring Futures

In keeping with this year’s theme Inspiring Futures, Withington’s Founders’ Day celebration held at Manchester’s prestigious Bridgewater Hall on 2nd May was a joyful, uplifting occasion filled with motivational speeches, wonderful music, poignant readings and heartfelt tributes also to the school’s 2023 Ad Lucem award winners.

The annual event, a popular fixture in the WGS calendar since 1925, once again saw pupils, staff, parents, alumnae, governors, trustees and friends gather together as a whole School community to commemorate Withington’s foundation 133 years ago, reflect on our pupils’ many ‘awe inspiring’ activities and achievements over the past 12 months and bid a formal farewell to our outgoing Year 13 leavers.

Guest speaker for the occasion was Dr Louise Maynard-Atem, a Withington Class of 2004 alumna and current school Governor, who, after presenting this year’s leavers with their chosen books, a tradition she remembered well, went on to speak with great passion of her ‘non-linear’ career which, she said, had been inspired by her time at Withington.

Dr Louise Maynard-Atem presenting Year 13 leavers with a book of their choice as is a Founders’ Day tradition

She outlined her journey from her WGS days to studying Chemistry to post-graduate doctoral research level, to then working in Data and Artificial Intelligence, and culminating in the position she now holds as Deputy Director of Data and Insights with Central Government, which includes working with the Cabinet Office. Her current role involves responsibility for the Government’s digital output across a wide range of tech areas – and she had the audience captivated as she revealed that the national emergency alert that went out on 23rd April to UK smartphones fell to one of her five teams to execute.

Reflecting on her career, which has seen her win a number of national and tech awards, Dr Maynard-Atem attributed her success, to the combination of skills, values and knowledge she had picked up during her time at Withington. “The career I have been able to build since is very much rooted in the things that I learnt whilst I was here,” she said as she pointed to knowledge and information gained from her academic lessons; attitudes and values that had fostered curiosity and adaptability which has enabled her to interact and engage with people from different faiths and all walks of life; and to the abilities and skills that go beyond the curriculum, helping to develop her expertise in, for example, problem solving, analysis and clear communication.

And looking back at the aspirations she had held during her own school days Dr Maynard-Atem, accompanied at the event by a group of alumnae friends and members of her family, outlined how her ideas and plans had evolved since she left Withington.  Urging current pupils to be open to change, she told them, “This year’s theme is Inspiring Futures and hopefully this small snapshot of the things that I’ve been doing over the past twenty years demonstrates that you can’t predict what’s going to come next. Be open to those changes and you be well equipped with the skillset, knowledge and values that Withington gives you to navigate the unpredictable.”

Dr Louise Maynard-Atem, a Withington Class of 2004 alumna and current school Governor, spoke with great passion of her ‘non-linear’ career which, she said, had been inspired by her time at Withington

Mrs Haslam had spoken in her speech of the blend of qualities that makes Withington such an inspirational place and which had resulted in the School being recognised by the Sunday Times as North West Independent Secondary School of the Decade and named as North West Independent Secondary School of the Year for the fourth consecutive time.

“Such success is not inevitable but is the result of the hard work, imagination, skills and attitude of those who make up our community, present and past, and who create the special chemistry that inspires us all to give of our best.” This applies throughout all arenas of school life, she stressed, as the audience were treated to a large-screen slide presentation showing a wide range of activities and achievements across both Senior and Junior year groups.  “There is little that cannot be achieved with a commitment to ongoing learning and to what is right, a commitment to determination, great teamwork, kindness and a willingness to go the extra mile.”

Mrs Haslam also paid tribute to Miss Hulme, an inspirational Withington Headmistress (1961 -1985), who celebrated her 100th birthday last year. Miss Hulme had established the WGS bursary fund and as the school works towards its target of enabling one in five of our pupils to benefit from a Withington bursary, this year the Fund has been dedicated in her name, she said.

Mrs Haslam then went on to present the 2023 Ad Lucem awards. Launched in 2021, the awards recognise alumnae – voted for by pupils – who are role models and whose achievements, outlook and conduct reflects the school’s ethos and values, making them exceptional public ambassadors for the school community.

This year’s Ad Lucem winner was Sarah Burton OBE, a 1993 leaver and Creative Director for Alexander McQueen. In April 2011 Sarah was revealed as the designer of Catherine Middleton’s wedding dress for her marriage to Prince William of Wales. The design house was most recently named for its work on the dresses worn by the Princess of Wales and Princess Charlotte at the Coronation of King Charles III.

The Young Ad Lucem award went to Kea Bell, Class of 2020 Head Girl, a WGS Bursary ambassador, a former young representative for the Greater Manchester Combined Youth Authority and recipient of a number of accolades for her voluntary and charity work. And finally, the Rose Acton award was presented by the former Class of 2010 student’s parents to Susanna Thornton (1986 leaver), who was chosen for sharing the same qualities as Rose herself had displayed throughout her life. Susanna has had a successful career in business and TV production, is a passionate cyclist and is also a charity fundraiser, having raised enough money cycling solo from Hong Kong back to the UK, to build a sports centre for street children in Cambodia. Mrs Haslam concluded the awards presentations by congratulating the winners. “Thank you all for your inspiring example,”’ she told them.

The 2023 Ad Lucem Award Winners: Sarah Burton OBE, Susanna Thornton, Kea Bell (L-R).

Read more about the Ad Lucem Awards 2023

The final speech of the afternoon came from Head Girl Georgia Campbell in which she likened her time at Withington to elements from the 2018 Abba-inspired film Mamma Mia! Here we go again; a perfect blend of stories, music and friendship that had “shaped and inspired my future beyond the school walls,” she said.

On stories, she spoke of the similarities between Year 6 Georgia heading off for her Withington interview Withington and today’s version of herself, “full of anticipation and excitement for the future. What Year 6 me couldn’t have anticipated, however, is the immense level of encouragement and inspiration gained along the way. Though, like many of us, I still have no grand vision for what this next chapter of my story will bring, through the experiences and people I have learned from here, I’ve gained the confidence to welcome those unpredictable aspects of life with open arms.”

Head Girl Georgia Campbell reflected on her time at Withington likened to elements from the 2018 Abba-inspired film Mamma Mia! Here we go again.

On music, she spoke of her personal interests, encouraging the audience to throw themselves into their own passions, adding, “I have felt so fortunate to be at a school where I’ve been inspired in my love of music by fellow pupils older and younger, as well as the ever-supportive music staff. It is a love I will undoubtedly take with me wherever I end up, and that is a hugely special thing to be given by a school.”

And on friendship, Georgia spoke of her Year 13 peers as ‘an incredible mix of even more incredible personalities’. “Some of the biggest inspirations of my life so far have been the lessons I have learnt from you all: of kindness, resilience, honesty and humour. We have shaped and inspired each other: both in the individuals we are today, and those we hope to become,” she told her cohort. Recognising also the support of ‘this fantastic school community including inspirational teachers, staff and family, she added, “Whatever our futures have in store for us, whoever we are inspired by and inspire in return, there could be no better starting point than the foundation we have created here together.”

Withington’s Class of 2023

Withington’s musicians, as always, are to be congratulated on their wonderful contribution. The choir delivered beautiful uplifting performances of Fields of Gold and Run, and the orchestra performed a rousing version of a West Side Story ensemble – Sections for Orchestra Music. This was the first full orchestral performance at a Founders’ Day celebration since October 2019 and it was a very welcomed return indeed.

Founders’ Day 2023 marked the first full orchestral performance since 2019

Readings were Look Out – A Poem of Hope by Philip Ardag, read by a Third Form member and Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr Seuss and read by three Lower Sixth students.