This is a Quaker school and was founded in 1779 by Dr. John Fothergill, a London doctor and a Quaker. The school was intended as a boarding school suitable for children whose parents were not wealthy. The school took over the buildings which had previously been occupied by the Ackworth Foundling Hospital, this was a branch of the London Foundling Hospital. The Society of Friends leased the buildings from 1778 and finally purchased it for £7,000 in 1786 through donations and annuities from Friends.
The philanthropic approach was an educational experiment and the school was based on the model of a family. It was administered by the Country Committee of the Society of Friends and the Board of Governors were appointed by the committee. The ideaology of the school was summarized in the 1778 minutes "it is proposed that the principles we profess be diligently inculcated, and due care taken to preserve the children from bad habits and immoral conduct. That the English language, writing and arithmatic, be taught to both sexes. That the girls also be instructed in housewifery and useful needlework". Other practical lessons were encouraged such as baking, work in the garden and dairy, mending linen and waiting at table.
The school was open to families who could not afford to send children to boarding schools. Eventually the school also allowed in the children whose parents who were affluent, provided that they contributed to the school funds and adhered to the ethos. The Principal at the school was initially called The Treasurer and later the Superintendent. The role was intended to provide a family based community with the Treasurer and his wife acting in 'loco parentis'. The head of the girls school was called the Governess and these posts were unpaid. Salaries were not paid until the appointment of Richard Whitaker as Superintendent in 1805.
The first pupils to start when the school opened on 18th October 1779 were Barton and Ann Gates of Poole in Dorset. The school was based on separate schools for boys and girls. Registers of pupils who attended Ackworth school survive from 1779 10 1879, 1897 - 1978 and are held at WYAS Wakefield(ref: C678/11/2/1-9). There are also examples of work produced by some of the pupils including writing, drawing and poetry. An index to apprenticeships for the period 1800 - 1843 (ref: C678/11/1/2)reveals what happened to some pupils when they left the school. There are also a number of letters and diaries from pupils written between 1798 and 1962.
The school suffered from epidemics of fevers in 1824,1828 and 1831. There was also an outbreak of scarletina in 1854. In 1838 the drinking of beer as table drink was discontinued. The Flounders Institute was formed in 1848 to train Quaker men as teachers, this later moved to Leeds in 1894. In 1870 the school was opened up to pupils whose parents were not Quakers and in 1906 a sixth form was established. In 1946 the school became co-educational.