Does God belong in the classroom?

Faith schools applying for 'free' status are one of Michael Gove's biggest headaches. In part two of his series, Richard Garner wonders how these institutions square with the Government's plans for multiculturalism

As many as 100 parents braved gale-force winds on a Sunday to find out more about the new primary school opening on their doorstep. It was a testament to the appeal of the new school – the first state-sponsored Hindu school to be proposed under Education Secretary Michael Gove's flagship "free" school policy. The school only has places for 60 pupils a year and will open its reception class for the first time this September.

The school, the Krishna Avanti primary school in Leicester, is modelled on an existing Hindu school already opened in Harrow, north-west London. It, like other faith school proposals for "free" schools, has its opponents, those that think the plethora of religious schools being opened under the Gove initiative will destroy community cohesion and increase segregation on racial and religious grounds among pupils.

Certainly, the aims of the new Leicester school are laudable in attempting to overcome that. Its mission statement insists it will select 50 per cent of its pupils on religious grounds, ie, they are members of the Hindu faith, and 50 per cent from non-Hindu backgrounds. It is not a disciple of the "free" school movement – choosing this route because it is "the only game in town" when it comes to getting the go-ahead for new schools.

Other Hindu schools are in the pipeline – a secondary school covering the Harrow/Barnet area in London, which is designed to become the first state-funded Hindu secondary school, and other projects in Barnet and Redbridge, east London.

The programme is intended to overcome the situation whereby there are a million Hindus in the UK but only 30 Hindu primary school places a year for them. It intends to follow the national curriculum – its religious education lessons will be taken up 50 per cent by learning about the Hindu faith and 50 per cent about other world religions. There will be a Hindu flavour to the culture of the school. Vegetarianism will be the order of the day and there will be an emphasis on yoga and meditation, aimed at calming children in preparation for their learning.

"This is a British school," Naina Parmar, head teacher of the Harrow school and project mentor to the new "free" school, told parents at the open evening." It is very important from the start that we talk about world-class learning for our pupils."

The trouble is, not every faith school is as open about its philosophy as Krishna Avanti. At Etz Chaim, a Jewish primary school in Mill Hill, north London, the project organiser, Adam Dawson, will not say anything about his school's plans. He says the project has felt the backlash from previous articles, that have led to project members being likened to "child abusers" and being told to "go back to where they came from". As a result, it does not believe in communicating through the media.

It is one of four faith schools in the first tranche of nine "free" schools approved by Gove - the others are the Leicester Hindu school and a Christian primary school school in Camden, north London – where there is a pressing problem of a lack of primary school places, and a second Christian school, the Discovery New School – an Anglican primary school in Crawley, West Sussex.

The Department for Education, in a résumé of the Etz Chaim project, says it will be "inspired by the beliefs of the Jewish faith with respect to ethics, morality and the importance of family, community and helping others". It says: "The Jewish studies and secular curriculum will be fully integrated, with the Jewish studies curriculum equipping and motivating pupils to engage with the Jewish way of life and with their Jewish heritage and culture." It adds: "Etz Chaim will be a modern, Orthodox Jewish, one form entry primary school."

There was initially some disagreement between the project organisers and the DfE over the Government's insistence that 50 per cent of places should be offered to non-Jewish families, but that has now been overcome. The project is backed by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sachs.

Then there is the proposal to open the Everyday Champions Academy in Newark, near Nottingham put forward by a Christian evangelist group which has creationism as the heart of its belief. It says it will not teach creationism through the science curriculum but that evolution will only be taught as another theory – in contradiction to the demands of the national curriculum (although the "free" schools will have the authority to ignore the national curriculum).

This is without doubt the most testing issue for Gove as he sifts through the proposals for "free" schools. Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, points out that – at the very least – such schools will have to be monitored very carefully once they have opened to ensure they are standing by any pledges they make. He says that it would be possible to teach evolution as a theory, but a "raised eyebrow" from the teacher could denote the attitude they really take to it. He is convinced there will be many more applications from "extreme religious groups", who would not be able to set up a state-funded school in any other way. "I think it holds a very worrying message for community cohesion," he says.

He also wonders how the spread of faith schools squares with Prime Minister David Cameron's recent pronouncement that the age of multiculturalism was dead and that all groups should embrace the British culture. He particularly blames it for fostering Islamic extremism. "It is the biggest mis-match [in policy] that I can remember in my 15 years of doing this," he says. "The Government is saying we must be concerned about multiculturalism but somehow – as far as schools are concerned – they are untouchable." He says he could accept that it was difficult after embracing Christian, Jewish and Muslim schools to refuse other mainstream religions the opportunity to run their own schools, but that what is emerging will lead to more of a divide among the young "on racial, ethnic, religious and cultural grounds".

Back to the Leicester school. Its organisers acknowledge that – despite their commitment to taking in 50 per cent of pupils from a non-religious background – that it will be difficult to attract such applications in the first year. They believe, though that if they succeed and gain a good reputation in the neighbourhood, that will follow.

It is true that all the parents at the open day appeared to come from a Hindu background. Sandhir Patel, who is considering the school for his four-year-old son, Kyan, though, said the emphasis on learning about all the faiths appealed to him.

One suspects, though, considering the Hindu school's commitment to trying to attract a diverse intake, it may be one of the easier applications for Gove to rule on. Others will be much harder.

Other religious free schools

Leicester's first state-funded Hindu primary school is just one of four applications from faith-based projects to be included in the first tranche of nine "free" school bids to be given the green light by Education Secretary Michael Gove, ready for opening this September.

The others include a Christian primary school in Camden, north London, in a church hall in an area where there are not enough places for the current primary school roll; the Mill Hill Jewish School, to be run upon Jewish Orthodox lines, and a second Jewish primary school in Haringey, also in north London.

Still lying in his pending tray is the bid for an evangelical Christian secondary school in Newark, Nottinghamshire, which has vowed that the creed of creationism will be central to its ethos.

Critics say that the weakness in the current "free" school policy is over the policing arrangements once the school is open. They argue that a school can make a commitment to having a diverse intake but that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
Al Pacino in ‘The Humbling’, as an ageing actor
filmHam among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
News
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Mario Balotelli in action during his Liverpool debut
football ...but he can't get on the scoresheet in impressive debut
Environment
Pigeons have been found with traces of cocaine and painkillers in their system
environmentCan species be 'de-extincted'?
Arts and Entertainment
booksExclusive extract from Howard Jacobson’s acclaimed new novel
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
A Pilgrim’s Progress is described by its publisher as “the one-and-only definitive record” of David Hockney's life and works
people
Sport
Loic Remy signs for Chelsea
footballBlues wrap up deal on the eve of the transfer window
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker
TV
Life and Style
Instagram daredevils get thousands of followers
techMeet the daredevil photographers redefining urban exploration with death-defying stunts
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'
TVDaughter says contestant was manipulated 'to boost ratings'
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking EY...

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: NEWLY QUALIFIED TEACHER WE CAN HELP ...

Year 4 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 4 Primary Teachers needed for Se...

Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are currently recruitin...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor