5. Open Air Schools
The best classroom and the richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky.”Margaret McMillan
In the early 20th century, schools in rural or wooded areas were set up away from city centres to improve the health of ill children. These open air schools provided fresh air at a time when cities were overcrowded and polluted.
The first open air school was set up in Germany in 1904 to help children with long-term health issues as the fresh air and exercise was proven to improve health. The first English open air school was built in 1907 in London. Margaret McMillan and her sister Rachel opened one in 1908 and an innovative open-air nursery school and training centre in 1914. By 1937, there were 96 in Britain; both residential and day schools.
Bradford set up a trial open air school in 1908 in Buck Wood in Thackley. At the time, Bradford’s high poverty levels meant tuberculosis was common in children. It was felt that an open air school would help cure sickly children.
In the autumn of 1908, forty ‘delicate’ children travelled by tram from Bradford city centre to Buck Wood on weekdays to attend Thackley Open Air School. At this temporary school, they had lessons, received meals and spent time outdoors. At the end of the term, the trial had been a success as the children were well enough to return to normal school.
Permanent and bigger open air school buildings were built; light and airy separate wings for boys and girls, new classrooms with open verandas for ventilation, resting sheds, kitchens, toilets, baths and showers, storerooms and offices. At its peak, it could accommodate up to 300 children of all ages. Demand to attend there was high and there was a waiting list.
It was not only tuberculosis sufferers from who benefited from the open air school over the years. The school medical officer referred children suffering from other ailments, such as rickets, asthma and anaemia, or children needing recuperation from chronic illnesses, like scarlet fever and diphtheria. Whilst there, generally for one term or less, children were regularly measured and weighed to monitor their improvement.
A general school day started at 9am with breakfast. A couple of lessons, broken up by games, took place in the morning – domestic skills for girls and woodwork for boys. Both studied gardening and nature. After dinner, children would have a rest or nap wrapped in blankets on camp beds in the resting shed or outside. After another lesson, the school day ended with a meal and games until 6pm.