During the coronavirus pandemic we have all been encouraged to spend as much time as possible outside.
This is because there is less chance of spreading the virus in the open air and due to a body of evidence regarding the health benefits of Vitamin D from sunlight.
These are issues most of us have rarely given a second thought to in our lifetimes, but you may be surprised to learn that within living memory, these have been the top priorities for our schools and education system during another era when a disease stalked the nation.
After an increase in tuberculosis in our inner-cities in the 1930s, in the lead up to World War II, purpose-built education institutions for children were built, called ‘Open Air Schools’
They were a simple but effective idea and in an era when schools are fighting valiantly to keep children safe from disease.
The schools were built to provide open-air therapy so that fresh air, good ventilation and exposure to the outside would improve children’s health.
They were mostly built in areas away from city centres, sometimes in rural locations, to provide a space free from pollution and overcrowding.
And now these pictures have emerged of one of the schools that was created in Rhiwbina in Cardiff.
They provide a fascinating insight into how the schools worked as children braved freezing temperatures in a bid to stop the widespread rise of tuberculois.
As well as the usual lessons, children also learnt how to grow their own food and learnt about gardening and use what they planted for their own school meals.
Pupils were encouraged to have three square meals a day to make up for any shortages there might be at home.
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.
The curriculum also included learning how to operate weather stations, studying and sketching nature and their surroundings, and learning skills like carpentry and metal work.
Local Rhiwbina resident Frank Kinsey, 90, said that at the time Rhiwbina was very much on the outskirts of Cardiff and was a very rural area.
“There is still a school on the site, but in the 1930s it would have been surrounded by farmland,” he said. “It would have been about the quarter of the size it is now. The area was near where the Deri Stores are situated now and I can remember having to cross the road there and wait for the cows to be moved from the fields.
“There were some other similar school and open air facilities in other parts of Wales too.
“There was an open air school in Sully and my father used to take me to visit his friend who was at an open air facility in Talgarth. They even slept out in the open there.”
In the years leading up to the Second World War, thousands of sickly children were sent to the open air schools, which were set up across the UK, Europe and even America.
The schools were residential, “set up in tents, prefabricated barracks, or repurposed structures, and were mostly run during the summer” but the pictures from Rhiwbina show children wrapped up as they were taught during the winter months.
Children were taught in classrooms designed to be partially outdoors, like in rooms with large open windows, or fully outdoors. Even sleeping was done outside or in wards that were exposed to the elements.
Norman Collier, a pupil at one of the schools in England, told the Independent: “Sometimes, when we got there in the morning, the snow would have blown in on to the tables and chairs and we would have to clear it off before we could start.”
Lessons were never abandoned, the pupils were just given coats, blankets and gloves to help keep them warm. When that wasn’t enough, Norman says, “We just had to stamp our feet and get on with it.”
The movement started in Germany with the creation of ‘Forest school for sickly children’ in Berlin in 1904 which was designed to tackle tuberculosis.
Other cities adopted them soon after. The first open air school in England was built in Bostall Wood, London in 1907 and New York’s first outdoor school launched in 1908 on an abandoned ferry.
By 1937, there were 96 open air day schools in operation throughout Britain and 53 that were also residential.
The idea was backed by a teacher called Hugh Broughton who wrote The Open-Air School.
In it, he said: “Children who live in the open become acclimatised to cold, and so should not be fussed over.
“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.”
But log book of Uffculme School in Birmingham for one January day in 1912 recorded: “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.”
However after the Second World War, opinions towards open-air schools changed dramatically. Standards of living improved and new treatments, including antibiotics had been introduced, leading to a decline in tuberculosis and a decline in the open air schools.