Infant protector

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Samuel Wilderspin was a Victorian champion of child-centred education.

Today, his school is boarded up and dilapidated, but a new museum project is set to breathe life into the decaying building. Wendy Wallace reports

Queen Street school in Barton-upon-Humber shut its doors in the 1970s and is now a picture of near-dereliction. The porch is propped, the gutters blocked and slate tiles slip from the roof; a local lobby demands its demolition to make space for a car park. But this school, founded in 1844 by Victorian educationist Samuel Wilderspin, is unique; of not just national, but international significance, says Keith Miller of English Heritage. "Wilderspin is the founding father of school as we know it.

Classrooms, playgrounds, educational toys; it's all him." English Heritage is supporting a Queen Street School Preservation Trust plan to restore the building as a museum and education heritage site.

Samuel Wilderspin was an early champion of child-centred education. His beliefs - that young children learn best through play, that the role of education was to develop the whole child, that poor children were entitled to education even if they were destined to start work at seven or eight years old - still sound progressive, 150 years after his death. Reading his bestselling Infant system, for developing the intellectual and moral powers of all children from one to seven years of age, Sam Wilderspin comes startlingly to life in its pages as a modernist who could sit down and tell Ruth Kelly a thing or two today, based on his radical principles and his experience of teaching some 25,000 infants.

Wilderspin began his teaching career in Britain's first infant school, in Westminster, then moved to Spitalfields in the East End of London where he developed his ideas. Charismatic and energetic, he may have been the first superhead, travelling the country in the 1820s and 1830s to speak on the importance of infant schools for the poor and inspiring local groups to set up schools that he oversaw. His ideas spread to Europe and beyond, with the first infant schools in Germany, France, Italy and the Commonwealth all based on his model.

In the 1840s, he settled in the market town of Barton-upon-Humber near Hull, where the low mist from the river must have hung then much as it does today. Here, Wilderspin had a school built that embodied his ideas, and he stayed for four years as superintendent, teaching with his wife and daughter until his retirement in 1848, when he was granted a national pension as the "inventor of infant schooling".

Currently, it is hard to discern any of this from Queen Street's crumbling exterior. One plaque announces that "this building was erected as a national school in 1844". Another warns "Danger. Keep Out". The school is a grade II* listed building, but its importance in education history has only emerged in recent years. English Heritage's keeper of ancient monuments, Keith Miller, local historian John French of the Queen Street Preservation Trust, and others, have spent more than a decade piecing together the story of this school and its place in the history of education.

Here, at the back, is the large infant playground, highly unusual in its day and once planted with flowers and fruit trees according to Wilderspin's philosophy. Mr Miller believes that while Wilderspin was in charge the infant playground would have been furnished with a circular swing, and wooden blocks that both boys and girls enjoyed. He stands in its puddled remains and imagines the patrons saying, "Mr Wilderspin! Do you really need that much space for your infants?" And Wilderspin's insistence that he did, and would like the same for the older children too, rather than the small drill yards that characterised schools of the day.

Inside, the walls of the old infant school room bear the marks of galleried seating, another of Wilderspin's innovations. If the school looks unexceptional, says Mr Miller, that is because it served as a model for so many that followed. Wilderspin pioneered the use of resources, covering schoolroom walls with pictures and maps, and introducing educational toys.

He found that too many toys in the playground led to disputes and balls being lost over the wall, and thereafter restricted the choice to wooden bricks. Children loved coming to his school, he claims in his book, writing that some came barefoot in the morning rather than wait for their shoes to be mended, and describing the way others lingered in the playground till 9pm "to which I had no objection, providing their parents approved of it, and they did not get into mischief".

Certainly, parents liked Wilderspin's school. "So eager were the Parents of the rejected Children for their admission, that the enlargement of this department was deemed most desirable," records a begging letter from the trustees, after Queen Street was extended to take 150 under-sevens rather than the 100 originally planned for. Inevitably, the project went over budget; they were saddled with a deficit of pound;200.

Now the school is poised to open its doors to children once again, if plans for a thorough restoration go ahead in the coming months. Visitors will be able to experience a Wilderspinian infant schoolroom and playground, and Victorian classroom, before adjourning to a modern day cafe and shop. The pound;1.3 million restoration project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and regional development agency Yorkshire Forward. Work is expected to begin this spring.

For more information, visit or call Ian Wolseley, chair of the Queen Street School Preservation Trust, on 01652 632928

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