Children in the open air classroom at Regent’s Park, London. Unattributed image from T N Kelynack (editor), The Year Book of Open-Air Schools and Children’s Sanatoria (London, John Bale Sons and Danielsson, 1915).

Children in the open air classroom at Regent’s Park, London.
Unattributed image from T N Kelynack (editor), The Year Book of Open-Air Schools and Children’s Sanatoria (London, John Bale Sons and Danielsson, 1915).

The emergence of open-air education in industrial and de-industrialising society during the first half of the twentieth century, with particular reference to the concept of the ‘delicate’ child

Open air education was an international movement, conceived at the turn of the twentieth century during a time of significant social and economic reform.  Children in poor health, often described as ‘delicate’, were selected to attend open-air schools in the belief that fresh air would aid their recovery whilst they continued to receive an education.  My research will investigate the historical evolution of this movement in England, from its commencement in 1907 until its demise in the 1970s and will consider the extent to which this was a pragmatic response to a particular issue in time and place or whether it was instrumental in shaping future educational policy.  I shall be exploring the consequences of industrialisation, its effect on children and the state’s response, through education, to the needs of society and how this evolved to reflect changing social, political and cultural influences.

The work is multi-disciplinary in nature, combining heritage studies with the social and cultural histories of education, medicine and childhood.   I will focus specifically on the ‘delicate’ child; a child who was categorised as requiring a ‘special’ form of education and my research will consider how this was culturally shaped in industrialised and de-industrialising society.  I am particularly interested in the concept of power and will examine how, via the school medical service, the power of the medical profession influenced the educational system.  I shall also draw on the work of Michel Foucault, a French philosopher whose theories address the relationship between power and knowledge and how this may be used as a form of social control, to analyse the discourse surrounding the labelling of ‘delicate’ children.  Additionally I will investigate the school architecture, the underpinning philosophy and pedagogy and shifting medical and social models of disability.  Changing attitudes towards disability had a significant impact on educational policy throughout the 20th century and my research will investigate the nature of this particular type of ‘special’ school.

The open-air school movement is frequently absent from traditional histories of education yet, as a reflection of early 20th century social and educational policy, its place in history should be recognised.  Open-air schools provided an environment in which ‘delicate’ children could flourish and my thesis is concerned with identifying the impact this form of education had on individuals and the consequences of educational policy on society; I will argue that the open-air school movement represents an important part of our educational heritage that is often overlooked.  Heritage research and practice takes many forms and may include the investigation of tangible objects and intangible practices; my research will involve the examination of documentary sources and material culture and will explore the experiences of the ‘delicate’ child.  There are a few remaining open-air school buildings, some of which are now listed and investigation will take place into the importance to the child of the educational environment and how a belief in the benefits of fresh air influenced future school design.  I also intend to conduct oral history interviews with adults who attended open-air schools and who were once described as ‘delicate’ children; this will provide an opportunity to create a narrative of past events, reflecting the diversity of educational experience, which may be archived so that future generations can gain an understanding of how changing social and cultural practices can affect individual lives.  The findings of my research will be communicated on a website that I am in the process of setting up and hope this will also provide a place where people can share their memories of open-air education.


I am based at Teesside University where I previously gained my BA Social Policy in 1996 and MA History in 2011. Undertaking this research is the culmination for me of many years of interest in educational policy, first ignited in my undergraduate dissertation, when I investigated the integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools.  More recently, for my PGCE, I explored the purpose of education within the lifelong learning sector and, for my Masters dissertation I examined open-air education through the lens of social policy. As a mature student I have fully embraced the concept of lifelong learning, continuing to study a range of leisure, vocational and academic courses whilst working and raising a family.  I am presently self-employed and studying on a part time basis.

Supervisors: Dr Natasha Vall, Teesside University, and Dr Rosemary Wall, University of Hull