Fifty years ago, Spain was only just emerging from more than three decades of stuffy isolation and the arrival of King’s College on the educational scene in 1969 proved a much longed for breath of fresh air in progressive Spanish circles eager for change.
In various ways, this shaped the unique character of a school that began in an apartment on Calle Goya, which its founder Sir Roger Fry, a spirited 25-year-old English teacher, rented to deliver British education and a different approach to learning.“Most private education was in the hands of the Church and state education was not thought to be very good,” says Sir Roger. “Spain was welcoming people from abroad with open arms and British traditions were certainly admired in those days.”
Madrid’s intellectuals, celebrities and members of the international community flocked to the magisterial premises in the centre of Madrid to sign their children up as English was being seen as a necessity rather than simply a badge of a privileged background.
The school’s non-denominational credentials were also appealing after years of heavily Catholic fare and the demand was such that when Sir Roger reluctantly told Spanish actor Conrado San Martín, there was no room left for his child, the star of movies such as Rey de Reyes cried, “I’ll bring the chair and the desk!”
In the space of a few months, the school had moved to Chamartín on the fringes of the capital in an area predominantly used for weekends and summer holidays. Initially, just one chalet and a residence sufficed. But over the next eight years as many as 12 chalets were acquired in the vicinity. Largely devoid of residents during the week, the barrio became the personal stamping ground of KC students, a bubble within a bubble in which they were encouraged to question the received wisdom of the day.
Former pupil, Anthony Saez, who now works for the Canadian Government, recalls a debate held at King’s prior to Franco’s demise on the legitimacy of his dictatorship. “It would have got people into big trouble anywhere else in Spain,” he points out. “But King’s was open enough to understand that this kind of debate would be beneficial to students.”
Meanwhile, actress and director Liz Lobato, explains, “It was a very special time. The school was being shaped by these amazing teachers who created a family atmosphere. You had to be a little crazy to want to come to Spain at that time and they were people who wanted to do things and change students’ lives.”
In the wake of General Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, the last vestiges of Spain’s insular structure would be swept aside and King’s would become more integrated into Spanish society. It would also have a switch of venue.
By the mid-1970s, the progressive ‘village’ of chalets in Chamartín had come to feel too restrictive. This led Sir Roger to buy land in Soto de Viñuelas in line with his vision for King’s and the flagship school was opened there with more than 800 students in 1978.
The move allowed sport to flourish; basket ball games were played on courts instead of in back yards and extensive playing fields provided ample room for other team sports and athletics. There was also room for a wider range of extra-curricular activities; a school farm was set up for the younger children complete with a pig and an ostrich, horse riding became a viable option while an auditorium was later built for King’s budding thespians and musicians and a swimming pool for its water babies.
The space also allowed King’s to host annual events such as the May Fair and a sports day, the first of which was held in 1980, with a parents’ race and a royal presence in the shape of the former King Juan Carlos’ sister the Infanta Margarita, who refrained from competing.
The student body was an eclectic mix that was unusual in Spain in those days. Not only was there a rainbow student body with boys and girls from Argentina, Canada, Egypt, Britain, Greece, Holland, Italy, Israel, Korea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Sweden, Taiwan and the United States, celebrities such as Alaska and Lola Flores were joined by the Infanta Margarita’s children, Alfonso and Maria.
But there was no hierarchy among the students. According to former student Mariano Guirao, “Despite there being quite a few wealthy people as well as members of royalty, it meant nothing to any of us children. We were completely indifferent to that. There was a Kenyan boy who had grown up in a Masai tribe and had been adopted by one of the teachers and we felt equally as comfortable with him as we would with the King’s nephew.”
In the last 20 years, the school has undergone a period of exponential growth. While Soto de Viñuelas has itself expanded, King’s Colleges have cropped up in La Moraleja, Alicante, Murcia, Panama, Latvia, Germany and the UK, not to mention the King’s Academies in the UK.
What began as a small start-up in Calle Goya has become something of an educational empire, but miraculously the school retains much of its original flavour as a dedicated team of teachers continues to nurture creativity, open-mindedness and a spirit of solidarity.
As the head of primary at Soto de Viñuelas, Paula Parkinson says, “There’s an atmosphere around the school of caring for one another that is very unique to King’s. Because of the way we work, we still know the students really well and this community feel comes through very strongly, despite the growth of the school.”