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Legendary Englishman in row over fate of Pakistan school that bears his name

For decades the school perched on a barren hill overlooking the lush fields of the Chitral valley has borne the name of Geoffrey Langlands, the revered former British army officer who dedicated his twilight years to running a school in one of Pakistan’s most remote communities.

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But 25 years after the legendary Englishman took over as principal in this far-flung corner of the Hindu Kush, many local people want nothing more to do with the 97-year-old.

Parents and teachers are furious with Langlands after he came roaring out of retirement this month to try to depose his successor, a British writer called Carey Schofield, whom they credit with turning round a failing school.

“Whatever he did for the institution is now disgraced,” said Syed Taufeeq Jan, a retired professor whose grandson attends the school, originally known as the Sayurj public school. “Our demand now is it should be changed back to its former name.”

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Expunging the major’s name from the Langlands school and college would be a sad coda to the career of a man who first came to British India in 1944 and never left the subcontinent. His well-publicised biography includes time serving in the Pakistani army, kidnap by Waziri tribesmen during a stint running a school on the lawless frontier with Afghanistan, and the education of many of the country’s future rulers at Aitchison college, a grand British-style public school in Lahore.

It was some of Aitchison’s powerful old boys who helped him stage his dramatic attempt this month to oust Schofield from the job she took up just two years ago. One of them, the powerful provincial chief minister, Pervaiz Khattak, pledged to help his old teacher over a lunch meeting in the provincial capital at which Langlands said Schofield was ruining his legacy.

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Langlands urged another former pupil, the interior minister Chaudhry Nisar, not to renew Schofield’s visa. The minister, who is currently engaged in a crackdown on foreign aid workers, “did not need much encouragement”, Langlands said.

Langlands then flew from his retirement home in Lahore to Chitral on 15 June and launched a power grab resembling one of the military coups that have plagued the country. Brandishing documents signed in his own name, he claimed to be the “owner and founder” of the college with the authority to reappoint himself as principal, sack the governors, declare himself chairman of the board and lay claim to the control of the school bank account.

Parents were horrified to hear he had dismissed Schofield and reappointed seven teachers she had dismissed. Bashir Hussain Azad, a parent, said: “My son and daughter say that if Madame Carey is not here, they should be withdrawn and shifted to another school, and I agree with them.”

Nearly 200 parents and all of the school’s staff have signed petitions calling for the orders to be ignored and for Schofield, who is currently in London waiting for a new visa, to be allowed to return to her job. They say the elderly man was manipulated by a group of aggrieved former teachers who travelled to Lahore to lobby against Schofield earlier in the year.

Abdullah, the former vice-principal who leads the group, said of Schofield: “She left no stone unturned in defaming the great work of Major Langlands and treating loyal teachers who had devoted their lives to this school with contempt.”

But current teachers have nothing but praise for a woman they say transformed a school that had lost its way under an increasingly frail principal who had suffered at least one stroke in his final years in Chitral.

They say he was unable to control his staff, many of whom allegedly rarely bothered to take lessons. Students were said to have skipped school entirely or to have left classes to smoke hashish in a nearby gully, nicknamed “Tora Bora” after the cave system in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden once hid.

“The school was nearly on the verge of collapse,” said Sher Haider Khan, the director of studies. “It was financially insecure and discipline was terrible.”

Few signs remain of the school’s alleged decline, save for graffiti that completely covers the ceilings of some classrooms and a patch of wall on a nearby building that laments: “We hate our life without Tora Bora.”

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Staff credit Schofield with stamping out truancy and repairing the school’s parlous finances. Haider said teachers were no longer going for months without their once near subsistence-level salaries and had responded well to more demanding standards.

Schofield said a clash with a man she describes as a “deranged legend” was “sort of inevitable” given the changes that were needed and his habit of constantly phoning up the teachers.

“The school he created was a scandal,” she said. “Everybody assumed that as an army officer and an Englishman they would be getting all the things they were expecting – discipline, order, probity. But they were never there.”

She said Langlands had been unable to accept that anyone other than he could run the school and had been stung by her reports to the board of a school endowment trust on which he sits.

“The amazing thing is he how bloody cunning he is,” she said. “He is supposed to be desperately frail, sitting in quiet seclusion, but actually he was up to all kinds of evil and schemes to undermine me.”

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Schofield, the author of a book on the Pakistani army, is only the latest in a long line of adventurous Brits who have worked at a school that now educates 900 girls and boys on four separate sites. “We deliberately tried to recruit British tourists to come and help us set up the school,” said Javed Majid, who founded the original primary school when he served as district commissioner in the late 1980s.

Few highly qualified Pakistanis from outside Chitral were interested in moving to the former princely state that had always been somewhat removed from the rest of the country, Majid said, so he turned to buccaneering Brits attracted by the romance of the frontier region with Afghanistan.

Only two small aircraft visit the town each week and heavy snowfall can make the full day’s drive to the capital, Islamabad, impossible in winter. To help raise the status of an underdeveloped part of the country, all lessons are exclusively in English, still the essential language of the professional and government elite.

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