Tes Independent School Awards 2021 Winners

The winners of the Tes Independent School Awards 2021, were announced on Friday 30 April 2021 at our virtual awards ceremony. Below are the winners in each category.

The winners e-book is avaliable here

Watch the winners revealed at our glittering online ceremony below! 

Lifetime achievement 
Sylvia Grace

The recipient of this year’s lifetime achievement award is Sylvia Grace, acting headmistress of Moreton Hall Prep School in Shropshire, where she has inspired generations of pupils.

Her career in teaching began by chance. Having graduated from Royal Holloway College with a degree in history and Latin in 1962, she learned that the local primary school was looking for someone to “babysit” a class of 30 children aged 4-7 for a few days, until the arrival of their new teacher. When the teacher failed to show, Ms Grace took on the role full time. “Three years later, I could teach infants,” she recalls.

She then moved into junior teaching until 1972, when she began teaching O-level Latin at Deeside High School in Wales. She also took on CSE history, which she describes as “tough at first” (it was the last lesson on a Friday), but she quickly adapted, eventually becoming head of year. After that, she became deputy head at Howell’s School in Denbigh until, in 1986, as she presented prizes at Arden – a small preparatory school – the headmistress confided to her that she was terminally ill and the school would need to close. “I remember driving home and thinking very clearly, I could do this. So I bought it!” she recalls.

Arden became known for its academic rigour and creativity, as well as its nurturing community. “Children made friends for life and came back to live here after university,” said one parent. “I can’t thank Sylvia enough.” As pupil numbers exceeded 100, Ms Grace decided to retire, but then agreed to help out at Moreton Hall. Three years later, she was appointed deputy head. After a further seven years, she finally did retire. But in 2020, she agreed to take on the role of acting headmistress at Moreton’s prep school and – through one of the most turbulent periods in education – she has been at school seven days a week, determined that key workers’ children receive the very best teaching and learning, and undaunted by any risks presented by her age

Best use of technology award
Rugby School

Rugby School, in Warwickshire, captured the judges’ attention through its use of technology to help students adjust to lockdown restrictions. Lead judge David James said its online teaching and learning programme “stood out, not only for the depth and breadth of its provision but also for its admirable determination to make its resources available to local and international students, including helping children in Nairobi learn English and maths”. Academic and co-curricular programmes were reinvented for lockdown, he added, “with the performing arts standing out as being especially impressive and popular”.

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, the school was already livestreaming music performances and sports events – such as the annual Crick Run – so that parents could cheer on their children in real time. The sports department also uses the latest technology to track students’ fitness, with each student able to access a personalised coaching programme through an app, which has helped them restore their fitness to pre-lockdown levels.

Investment in technology enabled Rugby to continue with a largely normal timetable within three days of school closures. Lectures continued online, while virtual music lessons started the day after pupils went home. The lockdown did not prevent ensembles from continuing to play and record, with the music department creating its own YouTube channel to share performances. And house singing competitions were introduced to maintain bonds for students who would usually be boarding together.

The school used Microsoft Teams to allow play casts to rehearse together. Once different parts were recorded on students’ mobile phones, they were “stitched together”, along with sound effects and music, transforming a planned live performance at the Edinburgh Fringe into a radio play. Technology also helped the school to continue its outreach work with children living in the Huruma slum in Nairobi, Kenya, with Rugby students connecting online to teach them basic English and maths

Creativity award
Wycombe Abbey

Wycombe Abbey impressed the judges with its pioneering Carrington Award scheme, which was the result of a two-year research project undertaken by staff.

The Buckinghamshire school, for girls aged 11-18, created the leadership programme for its sixth form around four key principles: leadership, responsibility and global thinking; confidence and self-reliance; creativity and vision; and critical thinking and intellectual curiosity. The school wanted the programme to be authoritative and to reflect the global outlook of its students (who come from 29 different countries). It also needed to be ambitious – to develop the potential of the school’s able cohort – and worthwhile, supporting students’ resilience and creativity.

Lead judge Simon Larter-Evans said: “Wycombe Abbey’s Carrington Award is a carefully researched programme that aims to meet the future needs of young women, particularly in the realm of leadership. It assumes an outward-looking perspective in terms of global citizenship and is particularly impressive in acting on the need to bridge the social divide by sharing its programme with local state schools.”

Taught through a mixture of university-style seminars and lectures by experts over four periods per week, teaching methods emphasise discussion and debate as preparation for higher education. Judges were particularly impressed by the school’s use of transmedia storytelling, using a variety of media to immerse students in a narrative. Leadership skills are further developed through a two-day Leadership Summit with a local boys’ school, Reigate Grammar School.

The Carrington Award also forms a major part of Wycombe Abbey’s outreach programme, where pupils from three local state schools are invited to participate in events developing communication, commercial and leadership skills

Independent-state school partnership award
Bedales School

This year’s independent-state school partnership award recognises the brilliant collaboration between Bedales School and The Key Education Centre.

Staff at Bedales, a co-educational Hampshire boarding school known for its focus on educational innovation, have noted in recent years that there are similarities between the school’s approach and the “alternative curriculum” undertaken by young people for whom conventional schooling has not worked. The Key is a pupil referral unit catering for students unable to attend school either because they are at-risk, have been permanently excluded, are emotionally vulnerable or absent owing to ill health. Bedales welcomed the suggestion that its students work alongside pupils at The Key, which would help broaden Bedales pupils’ understanding of different social and economic circumstances, while students at The Key would access new opportunities and activities.

From 2019, the Bedales Outdoor Work department arranged weekly visits for Key students to participate in animal husbandry, blacksmithing, pizza baking and woodwork, alongside Bedales staff and students. Pupils at The Key have responded in a profoundly positive way. They have said how much they look forward to the visits and the teacher responsible for outreach has noted their growing confidence. Students’ attendance at The Key has improved as a result of their participation and their parents have said how enthusiastic they are in sharing their experiences. Working together, students from both schools have also made and sold pizzas at Bedales, with money raised going towards a pizza oven for The Key.

Lead judge Deborah Leek-Bailey said: “It is a testament to this initiative that pupils from both Bedales and The Key have been given the opportunity to collaborate on a variety of projects, which have led to increased confidence, greater self-regulation and a broader perspective

Student initiative of the year
Streatham & Clapham High School (GDST)

Judges were dazzled by a student initiative at Streatham & Clapham High School, London, to nurture girls’ passion for maths and inspire them to pursue careers in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). In April 2020, motivated by a lack of female candidates applying to study the subject at degree level and of organisations supporting younger maths students, Year 12 student Joely To set up the maths support website Pioneer, which filled a gap during the first lockdown.

She began by publishing articles and interviews with maths undergraduates and professionals, and partnered with Girls in Data to organise three data challenge series and a summer school for more than 600 girls across the UK. She then developed a virtual events and seminar programme, approaching global corporations – such as Experian, Zurich Insurance, Tableau and Chartmetric – to include them in the next phase of real-world maths challenges. With Experian, students applied their skills to the challenge of social distancing while the Zurich challenge aimed to improve customer experience and the Chartmetric summer school taught students how to analyse music streaming data. Following completion of the challenge, one 16-year-old was offered a job at Experian.

Joely organised and delivered a maths careers Q&A webinar for students in the UK and Nigeria, as well as presenting to more than 200 maths teachers at a Mathematics Education Innovation conference. In total, she has held more than 10 webinar events, reaching in excess of 1,000 students, and her website has been viewed almost 21,000 times. As a result, Pioneer was recently featured in The Guardian, and Joely won the Nottingham Building Society’s Innovative Young People of 2020 Award.

Lead judge Alistair McConville said: “The judges were hugely impressed by the way Joely acted with such initiative and drive to get her laudable project off the ground and by the impact it has already had. We were particularly impressed by the way she has connected with ‘real-world’ partners.”

Marketing campaign of the year
Felsted School

Judges were impressed by how Felsted School, in Essex, developed its digital marketing during the pandemic. Working in a small team of three, and mainly from home in isolation, the marketing team delivered an impressive array of online initiatives.

These included virtual open mornings, which were filmed and edited for online delivery. The events resulted in a strong uptick in attendance, with a 45 per cent increase in attendees to its Reception to Year 4 entry open morning, while there were 75 per cent more attendees for the sixth-form entry event.

For Year 7 to 12 entry, a dedicated new interactive event was created, with breakout rooms for sports, art, music, drama, and design and technology. A sixth-form subject fair featured 24 subject videos, filmed in advance and promoted via a dedicated webpage, prior to a Q&A session. Meanwhile, a Year 7 taster day involved six different subject experiences for prospective pupils to take part in.

The marketing team also organised an online end-of-year speech day as well as an online parents’ meeting, using pre-recorded videos. And to boost community engagement, the team arranged an online virtual wellbeing event, attended by 20 feeder-school headteachers, as well as other exciting events, such as a hockey virtual masterclass and a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) competition.

Judge Rachel Hadley-Leonard said Felsted’s marketing strategy was “an outstanding, totally immersive and digitally savvy campaign in response to the pandemic: a truly comprehensive approach, with significant impact on engagement from prospective families, but also benefiting families and schools in the local community”

Sports award
Orchard House School

The sports programme at Orchard House, a 3-11 co-educational school in London, was commended by judges for the ways it incorporated sport into the curriculum during the national lockdown to boost pupils’ wellbeing.

Drawing on research from the Mental Health Foundation, which showed that mental health problems affect one in 10 children, the school decided to combat the uncertainty of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic by emphasising sport and fitness. The school day begins with activities such as games, swimming, fitness or running. Each session focuses on the values of honesty, respect, responsibility, equality, kindness and achievement, all of which help to develop pupils’ citizenship skills.

All major sports are on offer at the school, as well as judo, fencing, Ultimate Frisbee, bootcamps, cross-country, modern educational dance, hip-hop, ballroom and Latin dance, yoga, table tennis and table football. Many pupils have gone on to obtain sports scholarships at leading senior schools, while the school’s netball team finished in the top four in the country at an Independent Association of Prep Schools competition.

Staff support the sports ethos by taking part in football, Ultimate Frisbee, rounders, cricket and a dance group that performs for the children at Christmas. Pupils can also take part in house competitions, while the school hosts various tournaments to enable local schools to compete in a range of sports. Orchard House was one of the first to field a mixed rugby side at a local tournament. The school also fielded mixed teams in cricket and rounders matches, so pupils could compete as equals.

Lead judge Richard Walden said: “There is a wonderful sense of enjoyment and participation in sport at Orchard House, with great commitment from all staff, including the head. The PE teachers continued to offer a strong programme during lockdown, which maintained the great contribution to pupils’ good health and wellbeing that the school’s sport always makes

Strategic education initiative of the year
Harrow School Online

Harrow School wowed judges with its innovative approach to online learning. It founded Harrow School Online – a pioneering full-time online British-curriculum school – prior to the pandemic, with the aim of helping students access a high-quality British education digitally.

Lead judge Julie Robinson said: “Harrow School Online came of age during the pandemic, demonstrating the power of an online learning platform to support education across the world. Its online sixth form inspires through success coaches, mentors, tutors and teachers…an excellent example of the innovative delivery of the British curriculum.”

The school has enrolled pupils from more than 16 countries in its first year. It caters for pupils who may need flexibility in their learning, whose families are relocating or who do not live close to a suitable school. Those who take part in competitive sports or other commitments can benefit, and it can help students who find the distractions of the classroom less easy to cope with.

Harrow School Online uses a “flipped” classroom approach, where students work through interactive self-study materials to develop their knowledge of a topic ahead of a lesson in a virtual classroom. The selfstudy materials allow students to work through content at their own pace alongside regular taught lessons to support their learning. Lessons are data driven, focusing on areas of challenge highlighted from self-study, and they include interactive discussion and group work.

Alongside the academic programme, students can take part in extracurricular clubs and societies. An elective programme offers them the chance to study subjects from quantum physics to investment. Students can access a skills and mindset course to develop their resilience and self-knowledge, and they have fortnightly individual meetings with

Wellbeing initiative of the year
Norwich High School for Girls (GDST)

Norwich High School for Girls’ wellbeing programme has prioritised students’ mental health during a challenging year.

Following a staff training day, the school realised that some students would never be comfortable reaching out to a teacher, so it established its Big Sister programme to promote peer support, involving a group of sixth-formers with whom younger students can share their concerns. A director, deputy director and topic leads assist the smooth running of the project. Meanwhile, Headucate mental health ambassadors and a buddy system for the lower school ensure the availability of a range of people for students to speak to when they encounter problems.

The school nurse is involved in the delivery of the PSHE curriculum, highlighting difficult subjects, such as domestic abuse in relationships and how girls can examine their breasts for lumps. Students are encouraged to raise their worries with the pastoral deputy head, who also eats lunch with girls who struggle with disordered eating, so they don’t feel under pressure as a result of having lunch in the dining hall with the other students.

Students can self-refer to the school counsellor confidentially and access face-to-face counselling sessions during the school day, which take place in a quiet, cosy space away from the main school. The school runs an ongoing programme of self-care and education for staff and students through PSHE sessions, assemblies and staff CPD, as well as a regular counsellor’s blog, online wellbeing talks and Q&A sessions. It has also further developed its LGBTQ+ Alliance group, which holds weekly meetings in the senior school, with all year groups invited.

Lead judge Durell Barnes said: “We were very impressed by the way in which peer support was embedded in and central to the pastoral life of the school, providing growth opportunities both for those seeking support and those reaching out to them

Whole-school community initiative of the year
Thorpe Hall School

Thorpe Hall School, a prep school for boys and girls aged 2-16 in Southend-on-Sea, impressed judges with its wide-ranging commitment to helping the local community.

Southend has significant levels of deprivation, with 21 per cent of its children experiencing poverty. Thorpe Hall aims to enable children in the area to achieve their goals through its programme My Future, My Southend (MFMS), working in partnership with Southend Council’s economic development team – which ensures links to future skills shortages in the area – as well as partner schools, Education and Employers, Southend’s Teaching School Alliance, Connexions and Southend Association of Voluntary Services.

The programme will give Southend’s 15,000 primary children the chance to hear about a range of different jobs, meet volunteers from various companies and explore options for the future. A pilot event in 2020 saw 900 pupils participate in the first part of the wider project, which will include all Southend primary children from September 2021.

Thorpe Hall is also an official ambassador of the Southend Emergency Fund, working as a strategic lead for all Southend schools. It organised Invisible, which offers practical guidance to help parents and staff engage with teenagers to improve their wellbeing, involving more than 135 parents and staff, and representing in excess of 25 schools. The school has also developed a partnership with the Southend Primary Headteachers Association, hosting meetings and facilitating links between it and other local and national agencies.

Lead judge John Claughton said: “Thorpe Hall was chosen as the winner because its engagement with the local community of Southend is clearly long term, wide ranging and deeply embedded, and is a genuine attempt to understand and contribute to the world in which the school dwells.”

Prep school of the year
Saint Ronan's School

Saint Ronan’s School, in Kent, has transformed a tumultuous 12 months into a “year of wonder”. As well as finishing the year with excellent scholarship and common entrance exam results, the school also opened a new art, DT and computing centre to inspire pupils’ creativity.

Saint Ronan’s used Microsoft Teams to establish a programme of imaginative online lessons during the pandemic, and provided a series of “how-to” packs for parents. To give pupils a sense of continuity, weekly assemblies, daily registrations and pastoral one-to-ones were preserved. During that challenging time, staff were asked to contribute something “extra” – from origami skills to a “Cakey Bakey” to PHeW (psychological health and wellbeing) meditations. The school organised daily photography competitions, riddles and stories, and a virtual paper aeroplane tournament to keep pupils’ spirits up. From online concerts to “cringeworthy” staff videos, the school made sure its cohort felt engaged, safe and nurtured.

A daily radio programme included “Thought for the Day”, chapel, housekeeping messages from the deputy head, the weather, interviews with staff, and poems and stories written by pupils, interspersed with jingles produced by the director of music. A daily TV news broadcast provoked hilarity, with house-point banter, competitions, challenges and birthday announcements. Each week, the head accepted a challenge set by pupils, which saw him make appearances as everyone from a Marvel villain to a hero of the Wild West. At the end of the news, the head of art took on the role of weather forecaster, performing skits that included training her cats and making a face mask that she could keep on while eating.

Lead judge Mike Abraham said the “year of wonder” showed “a wonderful care of the development of the individual”, and he particularly enjoyed reading of the “outstanding scholarship results, the Saint Ronan’s TV and radio, the PHeW mindfulness programme, new arrivals at the farm and the many examples of staff ‘sprinkling fairy dust’ on areas of school life”.

Boarding school of the year
Moreton Hall

Moreton Hall wowed judges with its commitment to its students and the wider community, exemplifying the best of the boarding sector and managing the difficulties of the pandemic with aplomb.

The year began with the establishment of a school farm, which allows hands-on learning and provides a sanctuary for less-confident pupils. It also supplies eggs for pupils and a locally brewed beer to the wider community.

The school reinvented Moreton Enterprises, through which the students run a parents’ coffee shop and an online tuck shop. It also organised the Moreton Means Business conference, which included workshops with professionals, and developed the Rylands diploma to prepare pupils for life beyond school, which is supported by local businesses.

In light of exam cancellations, staff created a six-week Bridging the Gap programme of activities to keep Years 11 and 13 engaged over the summer term, which offered wellbeing and A-level taster sessions, and discussions with Old Moretonians about university life. Moreton also championed the local arts community, providing a virtual weekly venue for performers. And it moved its academic societies online, offering masterclasses from professionals in the arts, science and music. Its weekly drama school and the North Shropshire Orchestra did the same, with activities offered free to the local community and involving more than 90 local pupils.

Moreton enhanced its library, a junior art suite and Year 11 common room, as well as modernising staff and sixth-form social spaces, and creating an archives room. It also redeveloped its golf course and opened a sports hub.

Lead judge Gwen Byrom said: “Not only did Moreton commit to providing an outstanding experience to its students, through a range of well-planned initiatives, but its commitment to supporting the wider community in the most challenging of years should be congratulated"

Senior school of the year
Notting Hill & Ealing High School (GDST)

Notting Hill and Ealing High School (NHEHS) impressed judges with its commitment to giving students a voice. When a group of sixth-formers approached the head to raise concerns about female under-representation in film, #SetTheExample was born. The campaign to champion women in film resulted in a three-day festival across the entire senior school. A panel of female film celebrities gathered to debate for a red-carpet event, workshops with local film companies were organised and a filmmaking competition – open to Years 7 and up across the GDST group of schools – resulted in an exclusive screening of the girls’ incredible creativity at the Everyman cinema in Hampstead, London.

The school’s emphasis on leadership starts early. From Years 7 to 13, there are 300 leadership roles that pupils can apply for, from journalism representative to eco lead. A Year 8 initiative, Learning Amazons, encourages individual exploration, with girls seeking answers to questions they have posed themselves. A public-speaking programme across all year groups hones pupils’ abilities to express themselves, while sixth-formers take on the role of chairperson during high-level subject symposia.

With more than 100 clubs and activities, students discover their passions and build their daring beyond classroom learning. Students’ achievements range from a Year 10 student singlehandedly bringing together 21 schools and speakers in a global artificial intelligence “hackathon” to a Year 7 student organising a charity swimathon. During lockdown, a Year 11 student organised more than 800 letters of gratitude for the NHS across the school – an effort that made headlines in the Evening Standard.

Lead judge Bernard Trafford said the school demonstrated how it builds leadership opportunities “into almost every aspect of school life, describing vividly how unafraid and effective NHEHS is in allowing its girls to decide what matters to them, building their confidence, providing the skills they need to find their voice and, ultimately, lead from the front”

Pre-prep school of the year
St Peter's School, York

The judges praised the sense of belonging and nurturing atmosphere of St Peter’s School in York. The school, for pupils aged 2-8, has an ethos of innovation beyond the classroom and prioritising the wellbeing of every child. At a time when personal resilience has never been more important, St Peter’s supported pupils through an engaging remote learning programme and a recovery programme once children returned to class.

The Treehouse, a quiet safe space at the heart of the school, embodies the school’s approach to mental health. The PSHE curriculum teaches children about mindfulness and how they can relate positive mental health to other aspects of school life, such as PE and the food they eat.

Themes are carefully chosen to develop pupils’ emotional literacy. Through Learning Superheroes, children build resilience and selfawareness, working through challenges to help them adjust to the highs and lows of the learning process. They are also taught about kindness and caring for the environment. Inspired by an oceans theme, they pursued a campaign to discourage single-use plastic bottles in school. And they worked to support the local community, with music workshops in care homes and a reverse advent calendar for the homeless.

The school encourages pupils to use ICT, and they are adept at using robotics, virtual reality (VR) headsets, augmented reality and creating digital content. Meanwhile, its “classrooms without walls” approach means learning also takes place outdoors, as well as in the city of York and the environment beyond. Children are exposed to a wealth of opportunities, such as collaborating to light a fire at Forest School, exploring the Amazon rainforest through VR or designing working Stone Age tools.

Lead judge Annette Roberts said St Peter’s “showcases everything an independent pre-prep school should offer: an outstanding, innovative and broad curriculum, which encourages curiosity in an ever-changing world”

Independent school of the year
St Peter's School, York

The judges felt that, in a competitive field, St Peter’s School stood out in exemplifying some of the best practice in the independent school sector.

The school uses a range of approaches to support pupils’ wellbeing and personal growth, be that through its Forest School, encouraging pupils to use ICT independently or helping pupils champion a campaign to stop single-use plastic bottles in school.

Mental health is at the heart of the school’s work. Children learn that their mental health exists on a continuum and can be applied positively to all aspects of their learning and interests.

Catering for children aged 2-8, the school has an early focus on the idea of citizenship, with pupils involved in intergenerational music workshops in care homes or producing a reverse advent calendar for the homeless.

Judges were particularly impressed by the breadth of the curriculum on offer and the innovation on display. Whether working with programmable robots or exploring the school environs, the city of York and beyond, pupils are encouraged to think of themselves as part of a global and local community.

The Learning Superheroes programme helps pupils to face learning challenges with confidence and adapt to setbacks with resilience. Kindness is at the forefront of the curriculum, enabling pupils to prioritise their own wellbeing and that of others.

The school says that it “aims to nurture happy, curious, motivated, bold and adventurous children, unafraid to embrace life and seek new adventures”, and it was clear from its work that it is achieving all this and more, helping pupils to express themselves and take on leadership at a young age