School's Out

In 1930s Britain, thousands of sickly children were sent to open-air schools - even in the harshest depths of winter. Brian Cathcart meets survivors of a forgotten experiment
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Every generation likes to think they had it tough at school, and that those who came after were spoilt by comparison. For Norman Collier this is no illusion. When he looks back across the decades on his south London education, he knows that very few people in any period could top it for ruggedness.

Every generation likes to think they had it tough at school, and that those who came after were spoilt by comparison. For Norman Collier this is no illusion. When he looks back across the decades on his south London education, he knows that very few people in any period could top it for ruggedness.

At Aspen House in the 1930s, Collier and his fellow pupils studied in classrooms that had floors, roofs, desks, blackboards and teachers like most others. They just didn't have walls.

Apart from a low balustrade whose purpose was to stop the children falling out, they were completely open to the elements. At the height of summer the sunlight poured in; on a rainy autumn day the child on the end of a row could reach out and get his or her hand wet.

And then there was winter. "Sometimes, when we got there in the morning," Collier recalls, "the snow would have blown in on to the tables and chairs and we would have to clear it off before we could start."

The children were effectively outdoors all day every day, and lessons were never abandoned however cold it got. Nor was there any heating, so pupils had nothing but coats, blankets and mittens to keep the blood circulating. When that wasn't enough, Collier says, "We just had to stamp our feet and get on with it."

This may sound like a missing chapter from Nicholas Nickleby but it happened, and Aspen House was by no means the only place delivering education in this bracing style. On the eve of the Second World War, there were 155 such schools in Britain and Scotland. Even more remarkably, the children enduring these conditions were not strapping youths being groomed for outdoors careers, but, by careful selection, some of the weakest and unhealthiest boys and girls in the country, six-year-olds among them.

Aspen House, in London's Streatham, was an "open-air school", part of a worthy fashion - albeit a scary one when viewed from more than half a century on - that was supposed to play a part in the conquest of tuberculosis. It may even have done so in a small way, though probably not in the manner intended.

The idea was borrowed from the sanatoria that sprang up in the later part of the 19th century, most famously in the Alps, where fresh air and sunshine as much as medicine were employed to treat TB victims. It is somehow no surprise that the first school inspired by these principles was in Germany, set up in a pine forest near Berlin in 1904 with the aim of bringing fresh air from the mountains into the classrooms.

Three years later, this idea was copied experimentally in Britain, at a summer school in Bostall Wood, south-east London, and so promising were the results that half a dozen permanent schools, some of them residential, soon opened across the country.

For the most part, the pupils were not suffering from tuberculosis but came from a class of child described at the time as "pre-tuberculous". It was believed - wrongly, as it happens - that TB usually began in childhood and that certain children were especially susceptible. If these children could be reached, doctors thought, perhaps the disease could be stamped out.

"Stunted growth, loss of muscular tone and dryness of hair" were among the symptoms these children displayed, according to a medical official working in Leicester. Other signs were "rings around the eyes, long silky eyelashes, inflammation of the eyelids, enlarged glands, anaemia, feeble circulation and shallow breathing".

Before long it was found that more than half a million British children might match this description, and the problem was particularly severe in the slum districts of the big cities. So, in London and Bradford, Sheffield and Manchester, and sometimes in areas far removed from the foul urban air, more and more open-air schools sprang up for pre-tuberculous children.

Often, they were set up and funded by local authorities, but sometimes charities or private philanthropists paid: in Birmingham, for example, the Cadbury family sponsored several.

The fashion received a Royal seal of approval when King George V donated a site in Bushy Park, west London, previously used as a war-time hospital. "His Majesty thought no better use could be made of the premises than to promote the health of London's delicate boys," said the prospectus. Fees were usually subject to a means test, with the poorest children getting in free.

The standard text guiding those who ran these establishments was The Open-Air School, written by Hugh Broughton, a teacher and apostle of the movement, which appeared in several editions after 1912. Evidently owing a good deal to the outward-bound ideas of Baden-Powell, it makes an exhilarating read. *

"Children who live in the open become acclimatized to cold," Broughton states firmly, "and so should not be fussed over." He continues cheerily: "On an occasion some of us will not easily forget, the ink became solid in the ink-wells, snow blown into the classroom in the morning was swept out in the afternoon, dinner was served with snow sauce... The experience, though uncomfortable, was not followed by any ill-effects on staff or scholars - no one caught cold."

Others were not quite so effusive. The log book of Uffculme School in Birmingham for one January day in 1912 records: "The weather was very bad this morning. Bitterly cold, with snow falling... No pains were spared to keep the children warm, but in spite of wrapping them up well and taking plenty of exercise some of the delicate ones seemed to feel the cold keenly. At going home time there were nine inches of snow."

George Cooke, 84, remembers a 1930s winter at Brent Knoll School, south London: "It was jolly cold, I can tell you. I was wearing shorts like all schoolboys did then and we were issued with a blanket to wrap around us. I don't remember gloves. We managed; when you're 10 you just do what you have to do."

But there was more to the open-air school regime than exposing sickly children to Arctic conditions - and for that matter Britain's weather is not always so harsh. In fact the pupils found much to enjoy, and many looked back on their outdoor education - and some who survive still do - with fondness and gratitude.

"It did me the world of good," says Norman Collier, now 82 and living in Bournemouth. "Academically, we all learnt our three Rs, and there were not many of us dim. I ended up a company director."

From a later generation, Frances Wilmot spent four years at Uffculme in the 1950s, when the open-air school movement was in its twilight, and she and a fellow survivor felt sufficient nostalgia to compile a delightful history of the schools under the title A Breath of Fresh Air.

"The classes were small and the teachers were caring," Wilmot says. "And when you think of the homes that many of the children came from, it was often a wonderful change."

One reminiscence recorded in her book, from a woman who attended Uffculme in 1914, runs: "Each class had its own little plot to do gardening - there were competitions to grow flowers. They were happy days and the teachers were all very good - they went to a lot of trouble for us. In winter I remember snowballing and dressing up for Christmas plays."

Another pupil, who had been a boarder, recorded that a teacher used to kiss her goodnight, something her mother had never done.

Wilmot, for her part, remembers sitting in class in the open air and watching a green woodpecker on a tree nearby, an experience that left her with a lifelong enthusiasm for birds.

One distinctive characteristic of the schools, besides exposure to the elements, was the food. Just as the patients in the plush sanatoria of Davos could often eat well if they wished, so the clientele of open air schools were able to tuck in.

Broughton was firm on this: pupils must have three square meals a day to build them up and compensate for the shortcomings of their home diet, and he proposed a weekly meal plan of impressive sturdiness.

On Tuesdays, for example, the day would begin with a breakfast of porridge and milk followed by bread and dripping. The midday meal comprised beef with puddings and potatoes, followed by stewed fruit with custard. And before going home in the evening there was cocoa with bread and butter and bananas. The regime applied six days a week, although the children usually went home after lunch on Saturday.

Another fixture in the schools was rest. After lunch every day the children would collect foldaway beds and blankets and settle themselves in neat rows for a compulsory nap that lasted at least an hour and sometimes stretched to two.

Broughton insisted this was vital to the efficient digestion of the midday meal, and could also make up for the lack of night-time sleep that many children suffered at home.

It should take place in the open "whenever there is a reasonable chance that rain will not disturb", and would prove most beneficial "when a chilly wind is blowing".

When they weren't sleeping or eating, the children studied, although their intellectual development often had a low priority. They played sports and did physical education "drill", tended to gardens and beehives, operated weather stations, studied and sketched nature, wove baskets and did carpentry and metal work.

But they also pursued a basic curriculum. One popular activity was world geography, studied with the aid of a giant map on which the pupils plotted the movements of the great ocean liners, relying for updates on the daily newspapers.

Whenever possible, lessons were conducted not just in the open-air classrooms but out of doors altogether. Desks and chairs were portable, and so the children could form up in rows to face their teacher beneath trees, in the middle of fields or even - no doubt to the amusement of passers-by - in public parks.

But did all this do any good, in medical terms, as it was supposed to? The enthusiasts were in no doubt. One wrote in 1914: "Only those who have seen the puny, undersized, anaemic boys and girls at their entrance into the school, and revisited it after a few months, can realise what open-air schools have done... The improvement in their physical condition is marvellous."

Broughton published inspiring case studies, for example of an eight-year-old boy identified as GB, who was described on admission as: "Quiet disposition. No power of concentration. Mental ability - moderate." After eight months at an open-air school, GB's file stated: "Mentally brighter. Is more active. Great improvement in power of expression."

It is hard to believe, however, that some pupils did not suffer seriously in the winter, though this does not seem to have been something the schools studied or recorded. When the only warmth available had to be generated by exercise, children with poor circulation, anaemia and shortness of breath must have struggled to cope, and as a result they may also have been at greater, rather than lesser, risk of catching infections.

As for the fresh air which so obsessed the pioneers, the modern view has to be that it is largely a side-issue. There must have been a benefit in simply removing children from environments rich in germs, but once they were in clean, well-kept schools it didn't much matter whether they were taught indoors or outdoors.

The true causes of the weight gains and other improvements recorded in the regular health inspections at the schools were surely the plentiful supply of food, the exercise, the medical care and the attention of teachers and staff.

George Cooke's experience points this way. At the age of 10, after failing exams at primary school, he was admitted to Brent Knoll, near Sydenham, supposedly suffering from "nervous debility". A year later his problems had vanished and he won a place in a grammar school.

When he looks back now, his interpretation of the transformation is simple. At his primary school he had been picked on and repeatedly beaten by teachers - "I had the confidence knocked out of me" - but when he got to the open-air school that stopped. He was allowed to express himself, he found he was actually brighter than most of his classmates, his confidence returned and he never looked back.

Frances Wilmot was sent to Uffculme because she had asthma, and she remembers the struggle to keep warm on winter days. "How I survived, I'll never know, but it is a fact that my health rapidly improved at the school." By the standards of their time these institutions were child-centred - Broughton believed that class sizes should be small as "scholars need individual attention more than if they were in good health".

The open-air movement faded away in the 1950s and 1960s, largely, it seems, because it was made redundant by improving public health. The arrival of antibiotics, notably streptomycin, put tuberculosis into retreat, while slum clearances, the creation of the National Health Service and the Clean Air Act of 1955 did much to improve the lives of children.

A few of the sturdier buildings thrown up by the movement can still be seen, often forming part of the special-schools system now - though walls and windows have usually been added. Otherwise, the open-air schools are no more than a distant memory to some and a curiosity to others - a colourful if sometimes chilling footnote in the history of British education.

Even so, as Frances Wilmot observes, some of the old issues seem to be coming around again. "There's a lot said now about giving children more exercise and a good diet at school," she says. "You even hear of schools opening up early to provide healthy breakfasts because the children aren't getting them at home."

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