Why Britain is getting its first Hindu state school

There are more than 6,000 state-funded Church of England and Catholic schools in Britain, but so far none for Hindus. Now that is about to change. Steve McCormack reports
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The Independent Online

Buried in the small print of last month's government announcement of grants of more than £1bn for new school buildings across the country were a few words of historical significance. Among 150 new projects rising out of the ground will be the first ever Hindu state school in the country. It will be built in Harrow, on the north-western fringe of London, which has by far the biggest concentration of Hindus in the United Kingdom.

More than 20 per cent of Harrow's population are followers of the religion that has its roots in India. That means that there are 40,000 Hindus, hence the demand for a publicly funded school. It will be a primary school, and could be open in three years, depending on agreement on a site, and the subsequent building process.

Behind the project is an organisation called the I-Foundation, a group of British Hindu businessmen, working closely with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly known as the Hare Krishna movement, the mainstream branch of Hinduism in the UK. Influential figures within the I-Foundation in Harrow successfully lobbied the council to support its bid for government money to set up the school.

Their motivation was twofold: first, the belief that Hindu families, like those of other great religions, should have the chance to choose a publicly funded school for their children; second, a growing desire to anchor Hindu children more securely to the central principles of their faith.

"In recent years, we have seen a slow but steady deterioration of cultural and spiritual values in the Hindu community," says Nitesh Gor, a director of the I-Foundation. "In the 1960s and 1970s, when Hindu communities were establishing themselves in the UK, there was a concentration on material endeavour, and our values were not the prime focus."

The aim of the school will thus be to re-establish Hindu values, and to ensure that emerging generations follow the tenets of the religion and its approach to life. This echoes similar arguments put forward by leaders of other minority faiths in support of their applications for publicly funded schools.

At the moment, alongside more than 6,000 Church of England and Catholic state schools in the country, there are 45 Jewish, five Islamic, two Sikh, one Greek Orthodox and one Seventh Day Adventist school.

The new Hindu institution in Harrow will, in common with all state schools, teach the full national curriculum, but in an atmosphere where Hinduism is prominent for much of the day. Every morning, as you would expect, there will be an assembly with Hindu prayers. But Gor also promises that a subtle Hindu presence will reach right across the timetable.

"Even within the national curriculum, we will be looking to intertwine Hindu values and messages," he says. As an example, he cites Hinduism's core belief that humanity should be close to nature and the environment. This, he says, can manifest itself in science and geography lessons, for example, as well as in the environmentally friendly use of materials throughout the school.

The promotion of good behaviour and character, also based on Hindu values, will be a strong theme - an implicit recognition of the increasing difficulty some mainstream state schools are experiencing in this area. Although the school is bound to have a practising Hindu as head teacher, and, in all probability, in the majority of teaching roles as well, this will not be allowed to get in the way of the central pursuit of academic excellence.

"If we find it difficult to appoint a very good maths teacher who is a Hindu, we will just appoint a very good maths teacher," says Gor.

Harrow Council's backing for the plan did not come without extended debate and heart-searching within the local education community. Any new school, particularly one likely to be very popular and hence to draw children away from other local state schools, can have a potentially destabilising effect on the local education landscape.

This danger was clear to councillors, particularly as there is a surplus of more than 2,000 primary places in the borough, a situation prompting the need to slim down provision rather than open a new school. In addition, Department for Education and Skills' rules for the allocation of grants for new schools require that there to be a "pressing need" for the investment.

In the light of these two factors, Bill Stevenson, the Labour councillor responsible for education in Harrow, acknowledges the sensitivity of the Hindu request. However, he supported it because of his belief that the large concentration of Hindu families locally deserved the same choices as their neighbours. Harrow already has one Jewish and 10 Christian state schools.

To ease the knock-on effect on neighbouring primaries, the new school will have to grow slowly, in the first year taking only year-1 children, and increasing in size thereafter by only one class a year, until it has children up to the age of 11, and reaches its capacity of about 240 pupils.

The head teachers of primary and secondary schools in Harrow have all been consulted, Stevenson says, and have shown broad support for the idea of a new Hindu school. These consultations will continue into the planning and building phase. In parallel, the surplus of places across the primary sector in Harrow will be tackled.

The council also emphasises what it sees as the benefits of having a Hindu school in a borough where 55 per cent of school-age children are from ethnic-minority backgrounds. "The school will be an integral part of a partnership and a mosaic of local schools working with everyone, irrespective of faith and cultural background," says Stevenson. For the Council leader Navin Shah, the school is "another piece in the jigsaw" of a culturally diverse community.

It is no surprise that the Government has given the school its backing and money, in view of its rhetoric in favour of faith schools. There is recognition in Downing Street that faith schools are very popular and often characterised by better-than-average standards of behaviour and achievement.

However, the London bombings in July highlighted the potential danger of policies that segregate communities. So the Government underlines the need for any developments such as new faith schools to go ahead only if they have cross-community support. "As long as there is local consultation and support," said a statement from the DfES, "we are more than happy for them to go ahead."

A few miles north of Harrow, in the lush Hertfordshire countryside, the headquarters of ISKCON is home to a small private Hindu primary school, where 25 children, aged four to 11, are already having an educational experience exactly like that planned for Harrow. In fact, the "faith adviser" to the Harrow school is Gauri Das, president of the Hindu temple in Hertfordshire and spiritual commissioner for the Hindu Forum of Britain. For him, the essence of the new school will be the nurturing of character. "We believe in creating holistic, contributing members of society, who understand spirituality and life's purpose," he says.

This will be accomplished partly in daily prayer gatherings, and events marking the festivals in the Hindu calendar. Scattered around the classrooms at the Hertfordshire school are the drums, harmonium and small cymbals used by the children to accompany the rhythmic chanting that is a feature of most Hindu celebrations. "Teachers are viewed with great respect and reverence," says Das. "Once a year, we hope to give over a whole day to a festival honouring all the teachers in the school."

Kaushik Patel, who lives in Harrow, is typical of the parents hoping to be able to give their children just that sort of school experience in the reasonably near future. "My wife and I are very excited about the new school," he says. "I feel that it is really important for children to grow up with a strong sense of their religion and culture, and still get a high standard of education."

Hinduism in a nutshell

Hinduism is the world's third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam, with 600,000 followers in the UK.

It consists of numerous different strands, with no single, universally recognised founder.

They respect all other religions as equally valid "routes to God".

A belief in reincarnation, in various life forms, is central.

Many Hindus wear coloured markings on the forehead, in particular the red spot, or bindi, signifying the married status of a woman.

The main Hindu festivals are: Diwali, the Festival of Light, in November; and Janmashtami, marking the birth of Lord Krishna in August. SMcC