Social Media

A radical experiment in the early 1900s that embodies the progressive theory of the child that learns by experience

Prestolee School in Lancashire, England under the guide of Mr E F (Teddy) O'Neil between 1919 and 1952 became a radical experiment of progressive educational ideas, encouraging its children to learn by experience or by 'doing'.

Prestolee from Green Schools Online on Vimeo.

O'Neil like that of John Dewey (1859-1952) objected to the concept that the child's day must be divided up between work and play, his thesis being that children learnt by doing. He therefore developed a school environment which enbaled the children to work at their own pace following their own course of development. He believed that children were constructors and researchers of their own worlds, and that they should choose to utilise their time best to develop their own interests (Dudek, 2006).

The school was initially designed like any other Edwardian school in 1911 to serve the population of Kearsley, a small mill-town near Bolton. The school was comprised of an elongated 'u' shape with ten classrooms arranged around a central hall - and was designed with the view of the child as a 'passive learner' required to be 'disciplined' . The pedagogical principles of these spaces was about control and strict regimentation with very little consideration for free or active play. However, consideration was given to the health of the working classes and so the childen's spaces were kept well ventilated with plenty of natural light (Burke & Dudek, 2010).

Image from Prestolee School Website.

It was therefore an adaptable framework for O'Neil to test his educational experiments, where O'Neil fashioned the school interior and exterior as a single seamless environment, a deliberate response to what he considered to be the artificial and damaging division between 'work' (indoors) and 'play' (outdoors) (Dudek, 2006).

The children also played a large role in the transformation of the school environment, including the replacement of classrooms by workshops and the reconfiguration of an upper floor hall into what became known as the 'palace of youth'.

Playground equipment built by children, 1937. Image from Bolton Archives collection.

The curriculum consisted of: 'the manufacture of their own learning aids, including books, weighing machines and measuring devices; the fashioning of useful and functional furniture for inside and out, for home and for school; the making of cages and stalls to house school pets; the design and construction of a milk bar, an outdoor stage, illuminations for the whole school, flower trellises and vegetable plots, several towers and a working windmill containing several rooms that stood thirty feet high, garden pools including one for swimming, a roundabout climbing frame, several bridges spanning gardens and ponds and a goat house' (Burke & Dudek, 2010).

Children at Prestolee could carry out their tasks indoors or outdoors as they wished - among gardens of flower beds , vegetables, water fountains, bathing pools, engage in construction and a windmill was constructed by the oldest junior boys (seen below).

The windmill, built by senior pupils at Prestolee School, Kearsly, Lancashire, 1946. Image from (Dudek, 2006).

Inside, one of the most important transformations was the conversion of the assembly hall into an open plan classroom, accessible to pupils of all ages. Screens and other furniture were moved in, with long tables placed back to back forming large flat areas for activities such as music, reading, art and construction. The idea that learning materials could be used informally when individuals or groups of children required them.

Image from (Burke, 2006).

The emphasis on self-generated learning or 'learning by doing' required an environment that was highly flexible - the architecture thus emerges and develops, constantly changing as educational needs are defined.

Image from (Burke, 2006).

Scholars today have access to a number of records made by past pupils describing their memories of their experiences at Prestolee.

A child wrote of their expreience in 1945: 'How could anyone possibly forget it once they have been pupils of Prestolee Council School?' Whilst another explained to Warwich Sawyer, a mathematics educator, one of the many visitors to the school during the 1940s: 'One of the exercises we had was building a tower about twenty feet high with broom sticks lashed together with rope. We thought that someday we would bridge the local canal in the same way.'

The details with which children describe the various buildings imply their intimate involvement in their fruition. For example, the goat house is described by one child as: '... a small brick building about five feet by four feet made up of about three hundred bricks, has a roof made out of wood. The wood is covered with felting which is held down with plaster laths. The wall is nine inches wide up to about eight bricks high, then from there to the top is four and a half inches wide ... inside it has a stall and a loose box. The stall has now got a goat in it ... in front of the building there is an enclosure for the goat to run about in. Round one side of the enclosure there is a diamond brick wall and at the other side there are railings ... part of the enclosure is grass and part tarmac.'

Image from (Burke, 2006).

The Prestolee pedagogy was highly radical for its time, yet holds relevance today and chimes with contemporary shifts in educational policy and practice. Themes known today as 'Children as Researchers', 'Learning through Enquiry', 'Place Based' or 'Problem Based Learning', all which point to the need to make learning real, connect with their community, and motivate students by allowing their natural interests and abilities to flourish.

Via Dudek, M. (2006). Schools and Kindergartens: A Design Manual, Burke, C & Dudek, M. (2010). Experiences of learning within a twentieth‐century radical experiment in education: Prestolee School, 1919–1952, Oxford Review of Education, 36:2, 203-218 and Burke, C (2005). ‘The school without tears’: E. F. O’Neill of Prestolee, History of Education: Journal of the History of Education Society, 34:3, 263-275.


  1. Wow what a find!! Another one for the file :)

    Have you explored the Sudbury Model? A modern day equivalent. The 'Modern Schools' movement of Spain set up by Francisco Ferrier during the 1920/30's, the school Tolstoy set up (sorry its name eludes me) or even the 'tinkering schools' that are popping up in the USA...

    Good stuff. Cheers.

    1. Thanks ako! I haven't heard of any of the above, but just looked up the tinkering schools tedtalks vid - truly amazing. Think i'll have to read up some more now!



site by Ana Degenaar