Ad Lucem Awards 2023

We are thrilled to announce the recipients of our Ad Lucem Awards 2023 who received their awards at our Founders’ Day celebration at the Bridgewater Hall on Tuesday 2nd May.

Our alumnae are an amazing group of women, excelling in so many different ways and in so many different areas and the Ad Lucem Awards are a way of celebrating some of these achievements, as well as inspiring current pupils. The recipient of an Ad Lucem Award is a Withington alumna who has made an outstanding contribution to society, or who acts as an inspirational role model, either in a professional, voluntary or philanthropic capacity, or through their personal endeavours.  Their achievements, outlook and conduct will demonstrate that they continue to reflect the school’s ethos and values, making them an exceptional public ambassador for our school community.

Following nominations from the school community, a shortlisting process in which our Head Girl Team 2022-23 were asked to participate and a final vote by all girls in the Senior School, we are delighted to announce that the winner of the Ad Lucem Award for 2023 is renowned fashion designer, Sarah Burton. The recipient of the Young Ad Lucem Award is Kea Bell and the recipient of the Rose Acton Ad Lucem Award is Susanna Thornton.





Sarah Burton (Class of 1993)

Following her studies at Withington, Sarah Burton studied Fashion and Print at Central Saint Martins School of Art in London. She joined Alexander McQueen in 1996 and was appointed Head of Design for womenswear in 2000. In May 2010, she became Creative Director of the brand, having worked alongside Lee Alexander McQueen for more than 14 years.

Since taking the helm, Sarah has produced critically acclaimed collections with a focus on handcraft, establishing herself as a highly accomplished designer with both artisanal and technical expertise. Today she supervises the creative direction and development of all the brand’s collections: women’s and men’s ready to wear and accessories.

In April 2011 Sarah Burton was revealed as the designer of Catherine Middleton’s wedding dress for her marriage to Prince William of Wales.

In June 2012, Sarah was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to the British fashion industry.





Kea Bell (Class of 2020)

Kea attended Withington from 2009, joining the Junior School in Transition. Throughout her time at Withington she was very involved in multiple events and activities. She was committed to music at Withington and, as a percussionist, was often to be seen behind the drum kit in ensembles. Kea was appointed Head Girl for 2019-2020.

She currently studies Film Music Composition at Leeds Conservatoire.

During the pandemic, a time of disruption and challenge for us all, Kea was determined to support her community where she could, becoming a volunteer with the Caribbean & African Health Network (CAHN) and the Life & Friendship Group Burnage. She also sat in on community board meetings as a young representative for the Greater Manchester Combined Youth Authority, a board that allows young people to use their voices to influence policies in GMCR, and for the CAHN Young People Forum.

In August 2020, Kea was awarded with the Young Person trophy at the Outstanding Social Behaviour Awards (OSBA’s), which celebrates the positive impact people have made to the lives of others in the community. She was also awarded a Young Citizen of the Year Award for the Manchester borough by the High Sheriff of Greater Manchester for her volunteering during the pandemic. The Young Citizen awards celebrated the kindness, thoughtfulness and actions by young people that made a difference to local communities during that year.

In September 2021, she featured in an episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Listening Project. She was in conversation with another guest talking about their different experiences of education. Kea spoke highly of her experiences at Withington and of the ongoing support from the alumnae network once students move on from school. She also spoke about the importance of bursary provision in independent schools and how, as a WGS Bursary Ambassador, she had had the opportunity to speak to young, bright girls still at primary school and encourage them to think about applying to schools such as Withington.

Indeed, Kea was one of the first Bursary Ambassadors at Withington and continues to be a powerful advocate for bursary provision here, sharing her experiences at events and in publications and helping to raise funds for those who follow in her footsteps.




This award was created in memory of alumna Rose Acton who died in 2020. It is presented to a Withington alumna who has displayed the qualities that Rose herself displayed throughout her life and that are valued highly in our school community; qualities such as courage, curiosity, kindness, humour, determination, resilience and a desire to improve things for others, as well as inspire them.

Susanna Thornton (Class of 1986) 

Susanna was awarded a first in Chinese from Oxford University, also winning a Lacrosse Full Blue and Half Blue for Cricket. She completed her PhD in Chinese History, also at Oxford, and later an MBA at Manchester Business School.

Susanna worked for Thomson Reuters in Hong Kong, working her way up to Head of Equities Business, Asia, before returning to the UK as Head of Business Operations, Institutional Equities, also for Thomson Reuters.

In 2013 she changed careers and worked in TV production, using her knowledge of Chinese and of Chinese history. She was the specialist researcher for ‘The Story of China’, a six-part documentary with Michael Wood shown on BBC2 and American channel PBS, and then went on to work on a string of further TV documentaries about China for various international broadcasters.

One of Susanna’s greatest passions is cycling. She has always cycled – riding to and from school, whatever the weather, when she was a girl, and going on tours with Withington friends, camping and hostelling. She enjoyed cycle sport too, competing at national level in road racing, time trialling, in the velodrome, and cyclocross, in winter, in the mud.

When Susanna relocated to the UK from Hong Kong, she decided to do so by bike, alone. She wanted to take the time to adjust from Asia to Europe, doing the journey slowly and seeing everything on the way. It was an adventure, of course, not without risk. She coped with food poisoning and altitude sickness and even experienced a serious physical attack. But Susanna says she focuses on all that was good, “which far outweighs the bad”, listening to cuckoos call across the hills of southwest China in spring, camping in Kazakhstan watching flocks of birds flap upstream in the hot summer dusk, and riding through Europe in autumn, with apples on the apple trees, and piano music floating from open windows in Budapest. Passionate about sport and its power to shape lives and build confidence, especially in girls, Susanna raised enough money through the trip to build a sports centre for street children in Cambodia.

When she was 40, Susanna was diagnosed with breast cancer, for which she had extensive treatment. Ten years later, she had a major operation for suspected ovarian cancer, which fortunately was benign. She says she feels lucky to be alive.

A few years ago, Susanna started riding a Brompton bike (a small-wheeled, folder) and then, in 2017, started touring on her folding bike, camping wild. This was prompted by an invite from a Withington friend to attend their fiftieth birthday party. Susanna decided to ride to the party, taking place in the Netherlands. She chose to ride a Brompton, because it seemed the easiest bike to put on the ferry, and would be small enough to hide under coats in the hall when she arrived.

She found she loved the simplicity of touring on a folder, and now has a successful Youtube channel where she documents her Brompton adventures. She pedalled through Sweden looking for the homes of her husband’s ancestors, rode through Ireland’s inspired by the story of a friend’s Grandmother, and cycled from London to Stockport, finding along the way the farm where her great-great-grandfather worked, her last family member who worked on the land. She loves following stories about people. And she doesn’t go fast. She says that for her ‘a journey by bike is about going slowly, and stopping a lot, to look at a flower, a bird, a leaf, and have a coffee and a bun.’

She started making films because she wanted family and friends to understand what she was doing: not doing anything difficult, just gliding slowly and quietly through the countryside, curious to see what is there.

Last year, Susanna discovered that her breast cancer had returned. Following an operation, Susanna got back in the saddle, encouraged by the hospital to be active. Whilst still undergoing chemotherapy, she undertook a string of two-day solo trips, cycling and wild camping.  She couldn’t leave London, so she decided to follow the tributaries of the Thames, slowly, chatting with people she met along the way.  “Cycling is a brilliant tonic”, she says. “When I am on the bike, I literally forget about the cancer.” She carried on making films and loves it when she hears from followers that her Youtube channel helps other people facing difficult times in their lives.

Susanna has not allowed her breast cancer to dim her enthusiasm and enjoyment of life. Rather the opposite. Now, more than ever, she says she knows that small pleasures are actually not small at all.

Susanna is a great example of someone who has a curiosity and enthusiasm about life and the world about her. She has not been afraid to make changes and try new things. She finds joy in life in all sorts of ways and has dealt with difficult challenges. She continues to combine many of the qualities valued in our school community today and embodied in the Rose Acton Award – courage, kindness, humour, resilience and a sense of adventure.

The trophies for this year’s awards were chosen as the result of a competition by the Design Technology Department. We would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate Zaynah and Annabel in Year 7 and Evie from Year 9 whose designs were imaginative and innovative.

2021 Ad Lucem Award Recipients

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