Inside Britain's first Hindu state-funded faith school

The pupils do yoga, eat vegetarian food and are calm and alert. But critics say the rise in religious education is divisive and wrong

"I like the tree position best," says five-year-old Sadhana, standing perfectly still on one leg, hands clasped in prayer. She is one of a row of children perched like stalks on miniature yoga mats as calming music tinkles in the background. Half an hour earlier, when a crocodile of 21 four- and five-year-olds filed into the room, this had looked like any other school. But after they had launched into a Hare Krishna prayer, singing, patting a mrdanga drum and touching the floor in a low bow, it was clear that things are different here.

Sadhana attends the Krishna-Avanti Primary School in Harrow, Britain's first state-funded Hindu faith school, which opened its doors last September. Last week, The Independent on Sunday became the first newspaper to see the school at work.

It is one of the latest in a growing number of non-Christian faith schools. And its opening coincides with unprecedented levels of government funding for faith-based education, despite polls suggesting that public support for state-funded faith education is dwindling. A YouGov poll this month found that more than half of Britons think faith schools damage community cohesion, and 72 per cent want state schools to be forbidden from discriminating on religious grounds. Nevertheless, there are now 6,867 faith schools in England, with 395 in Scotland and 263 in Wales.

Until 1959, the state paid for only half the capital costs of religious schools, but over the past half-century the cost borne by the Government has soared, finally rising from 85 to 90 per cent under Tony Blair in 2001. Since Labour came to power, faith schools have broadened from being almost exclusively Christian to include Muslim, Sikh and now Hindu institutions.

Increasingly, the 10 per cent of capital costs that religious foundations are supposed to pay is slipping. Schools are claiming "exceptional circumstances" so often that the average contribution made by the foundations behind faith schools is just 7.5 per cent, resulting in additional costs to the taxpayer of more than £18m this year.

Critics say the bill to the taxpayer is all the more galling because faith schools are likely to be dominated by privileged and able children. Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of the Accord Coalition, a body opposed to faith schools, says this is unacceptable: "The number of young people from low-income families attending both primary and secondary faith schools is lower than the number attending non-faith schools. As someone who values faith enormously, I find it immoral that they're using taxpayers' money to act in this way. If faith schools have any raison d'etre it should be to support those others ignore, but it seems the opposite happens."

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, says the decision is one of principle: "Most church schools proselytise. It is wrong in principle for the state to fund proselytisation – whatever state or religion."

Staff at the Krishna-Avanti stressed that indoctrination is not the school's aim. Naina Parmar, the headmistress, said: "We're certainly not here to proselytise the Hindu faith" – despite morning prayers and yoga being followed by a reading of the Bhagavad Gita.

From the children's point of view, however, school is school. After a session on the history of Krishna, one child could barely contain his boredom. "Can't we go out and play now?" he asked, squirming on the floor.

The children here have a vegetarian diet with plenty of yoga and outdoor play. The mid-morning snack is a piece of fruit or raw vegetable – in fact, this may well be the healthiest class in Britain. The effect is impressive: all of the children seem calm and alert beyond their years, listening intently to their teacher.

The school, which has only one class, is renting a room in Little Stanmore primary school as its £11m purpose-built site opposite is finished. Facilities will include a meditation garden, an amphitheatre for outside teaching and eco-friendly innovations such as a grass roof.

Officially, applications are open to all but priority is given to vegetarians and Hindus; there are currently no non-Hindus on the register. It is clearly intended as a resource for the 40,000-strong Hindu community in Harrow. The teacher, Mrs Clark, grew up in an Amish family in Canada and came to Hinduism after living in ashrams. "I'm a very open-minded person and I believe Krishna is the same god as Jehovah, Allah or any other. Our supply teacher is Muslim and I want to keep it that way. We want the children to be open-minded, which is what Hinduism is all about."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander in the leaked trailer for Zoolander 2
film
News
The 43-year-old rapper was stopped at the Lamezia Terme International Airport in Calabria after he had played a concert in the city on Friday night
people
Sport
Pedro has been linked with a move to Manchester United
transfers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 1 Primary teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: An excellent primary school based ...

AER Teachers: Cover Supervisor - Central London - September

£70 - £80 per day + competitive rates: AER Teachers: This outstanding school s...

AER Teachers: SEN Teaching Assistant - London - September

£65 - £75 per day + competitive rates: AER Teachers: This central London prima...

AER Teachers: Graduate Primary Teaching Assistant

£65 - £75 per day + competitive rates: AER Teachers: A good primary school in ...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen