With a grin on his face, Colin Wagstaff utters an accented “namaste” and introduces himself as a “professional beggar”.
“I beg for donations from people who can afford and who like me consider it a privilege to help or work with poor children keen on learning,” says the chairman and founder of Kings School, located in the village of Vallioor in Tirunelveli District.
Standing at six feet plus, he bends down to the fourth and fifth graders, calls each of them by their names, tweaks their cheeks and pulls their noses and enquires in broken Tamil how they are doing in class. Some shy away, some break into coy smiles, some return a smart reply in English.
“I want these kids to learn and not simply study,” says Wagstaff.
A chance encounter with a street child brought him to India in 1994. He had no proper business plan or strategy.
“It took nine years trying to do the right for our students so that they have the momentum to do whatever they want to later in life.”
Colin Wagstaff’s family has been living in India for five generations. His parents and grandparents were born here. His three great-grandfathers were involved in India’s war for independence. One of his forefathers, Henry Lawrence, built the well-known Lawrence School near Shimla in 1845. Other members in his family served in the Army, Railways and Civil Services.
Wagstaff was born in the UK and initially was a reluctant import to India. Antony, a street child brought to the UK for treatment by a charity organization, changed the course of Wagstaff’s life. Wagstaff hosted the child while he was being treated. “While the young fellow got along well with my elder son, one day he beat up my younger one. The episode ended in a health clinic in Manchester where the doctor turned out to be from the same village as Antony’s,” he recalls.
Wagstaff’s brush with the child’s psychology altered all his plans. He quit the British Army, where he had served for 14 years, to travel to Antony’s little hamlet in the back of beyond. He felt education was the greatest way to eliminate the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Kings School was founded in 2005, starting with five orphaned children to create a community that could be free from adult authority. In less than a decade it has made a quantum jump to 2,000 students and 200 staff working on a cutting edge student-centred education model. Says Wagstaff, “The idea is to allow people to do what they want to do and be able to contribute back to society.”
Economics did not allow him to build a school straightaway. So, he first built a “children’s village” on an acre of land and after a door-to-door survey in Vallioor and other neighbouring villages gathered 120 normal and physically and mentally challenged girls and boys. Seeing the mental and medical support that Wagstaff provided to their children, parents demanded an English medium school of him.
That is when Wagstaff took to fund raising. He wanted his classrooms to be large-windowed, airy and spacious. He wanted a good book collection, the best sporting facilities, an in-house health clinic, big labs for scientific subjects, and also for music, art and other messy activities like clay modelling, sculpting, crafts and painting. He wanted the scope to continually transform and improve the physical space.
Wagstaff feels many secondary schools today are completely disconnected from the real world. They involve students in unreal ways, expecting them to do things that simply don’t make sense and yet not expecting them to do other things they are fully capable of. This places children in suffocating boxes. Also, the curriculum doesn’t prepare them for the world they will finally enter.
Wagstaff fails to understand why the learning environment does not take advantage of all that today’s world has to offer. At Kings School he ensures there is no prize for winning the race, but there's an award for what you know at the end. And that after twelfth grade, those who have the knowledge, skills, and character have amazing opportunities to go off to higher education and learn what they want to learn and get trained to do whatever they want to do.
He has a pet question: ‘What does a high school graduate need to know and be able to do in order to thrive in college, the work place, and life in the decades ahead?”
His quest for a suitable answer shapes the life and activities at Kings School. “I have a dream that all our students will come out as employable as possible, in whatever area they choose. To do that, we have to keep pushing the standards and stay current.”
He constantly studies how knowledge becomes school curriculum content and how it can be applied to understand and address human problems. “We train them to be firm, fair and friendly for ever in life,” says Wagstaff.
“I believe school knowledge is relevant for problems of structural inequality and social injustice. All education should promote teaching for peace and social justice,” he says.
He urges his teachers to inspire young students to create and acquire new knowledge and transform their own and others’ lives.
Nearly 35 per cent of his students don’t pay fees. They stay in the Home built by him and all their needs are taken care of. Another 35 per cent get subsidised education as they come from broken families.
Wagstaff wants his students to become hard-working, honest and respected members of their community who are able to manage their lives and help their families break the cycle of poverty. “We don’t talk exams here. Scoring is not the only element of education. To be well-educated and service-oriented is more important.”
For Wagstaff it is like coming full circle. His ancestors started a school in the mid-19th Century and 167 years later he has returned to build another one.
“My ties with India are inexplicable. My mother’s birthday is on 26th January, my wife’s is on 15th August. Antony’s sister is my daughter-in-law. I should get an honorary citizenship of India.”