School will tell story of the playground pioneer

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The Independent Online

In reality, the yard and the building it encircles constitute one of the most important surviving school buildings. It is the subject of a £1.2m restoration project supported by English Heritage andhas been placed on the national buildings at risk register.

Queen Street school is the last surviving creation of Samuel Wilderspin, the 19th-century social pioneer who was one of the founders of modern schooling. He believed that infants' emotions were as important as their intellect and that school classrooms should enable them to learn through play. Every school, he insisted, should also have a yard.

Before Wilderspin, infants were all taught in one room, overseen by a single teacher using older students as monitors.

Wilderspin banished ink-stained Victorian desks and can be described as the father of the modern infants' school. In his time, hundreds of his schools were built across Britain, Europe and the empire.

"This isn't a Buckingham Palace or a Chatsworth House, but it is one of few buildings which embodies the origins of modern thought," said Simon Thurley, English Heritage's chief executive. "Wilderspin is regarded as one of the fathers of modern education, but it's more than that; it's social change and attitudes towards human nature, the foundations of modern thinking."

"His ideas were way ahead of his time," agreed Keith Miller, English Heritage's inspector of ancient monuments. "He invented the playground... and what playgrounds they were: flowers, fruit trees, vegetable patches and all sorts of toys - what we might describe today as education aids, like building bricks. They also had swings.

"Each infant had up to six times more space in their playground than the older children in the junior school next door."

Wilderspin insisted the infants' teacher worked directly with pupils and devised the "teaching gallery" - seating tiered like a theatre so the teacher addressed them together.

He also created sets, based on equal ability or age, and used "teaching posts" - a series of portable easels fitted into floor slots to display pictures illustrating individual lessons. Over time they evolved into separate classrooms.

Opened in 1844 and constructed in the Tudor revival style, Barton was the last school Wilderspin built and he taught there for four years before retiring on a generous £100 annual pension from Queen Victoria. He died in 1866.

By the time it closed in 1978 his playground had become a car park and his teaching gallery had been demolished, but the stepped outline is still visible in the wall plaster and will be rebuilt, along with the teaching posts.

Eileen Coombe, a member of the school's Preservation Trust said: "Originally people were not aware of the history attached to the building. It's only in the past few years that we have realised just how significant it is. It was an eyesore."

Both the Heritage Lottery Fund and Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency, will provide around £600,000. Work should start in the spring on restoring the school's original features and help to tell the story of Wilderspin's revolution.