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."

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