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Welcometo Hindu modern

When a failing London comprehensive was closed down, the local Hindu community took it over and transformed it into a thriving school. By Hilary Wilce
The Swaminarayan School, the only Hindu school in the Independent Schools Council, has blended the unchanging values of an ancient faith with the relentless demands of modern education, to create a warm and happy school - with exam results to die for.

The school, which has just under 500 pupils, aged two-and-a-half to 18, has virtually 100 per cent of pupils getting five good GCSEs (one left early last year, spoiling the perfect figure), and gets a high "added- value" score of 104 for pupils as they move from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3.

But back in the 1980s the picture was very different. The school, in north-west London, was an anarchic and failing Brent comprehensive. The authorities finally threw in the towel, closed it down and sold the site to be a car-park. But then, among the run-down flats and semis of Neasden, a fabulous transformation began to occur.

The Swaminarayan Hindu community had been worshipping at a small temple in north London, but as the numbers of Indians in Britain grew, they acquired a new site and planned a stupendous temple. This was no small-scale project. Five thousand tons of Italian marble and Bulgarian limestone were hand-carved by 1,500 craftsmen and assembled into the ornate and turreted Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, the largest Hindu temple outside the Indian subcontinent. More than a thousand volunteers worked on the site. When, in 1992, as the temple began to take shape, the school site across the road became available, the community bought it, refurbished it, and opened the first Hindu school in Europe.

Today the layout of its 1960s-built corridors and classrooms still hold faint echoes of that blighted educational past, but its ethos could not be more different.

The school is based on the traditional values of Hinduism - respect, compassion and moderation - and pupils are polite and focused, while teachers speak warmly of being able to teach without discipline problems. Visitors are greeted with ready smiles and class choruses of "namaste". The Hindu faith pervades the school, with ornate silver shrines in classrooms and Gujarati lessons on the curriculum, but this doesn't get in the way of it being a mainstream school with a wide-ranging curriculum.

"You see," says head Mahendra Savjani, pointing at lively artwork lining the junior-school corridors, "we are just like schools everywhere. Hinduism isn't that prescriptive. It's very open. But parents put their children here for the values. They are very happy to be here in Britain, but they don't like a lot of the more unsavoury things they see, the alcohol and drugs and promiscuity and way-out behaviour."

Also, he says, they may feel that they have missed out on their own culture and not be able to read or write their own language as well as they would like because, when they came to Britain, the opportunities to learn it were not there. "They want to preserve the language and the culture. This is a young community striving to find its way, and we are here to help that."

He himself was taught in Gujarati in Tanzania, before becoming a pupil at Sevenoaks School, and taking a degree at Warwick University. His teaching career was in the state sector, working in tough north-London comprehensives, before moving to his present job in 1997.

Pupils come to the school from all over north-west London, from Harrow to Hounslow, often from modest, hard-working backgrounds where parents have to scrimp and save to find the fees, which range from pounds 1,500 a term in the junior school to pounds 2,160 in the sixth form. This means that financial problems quite often force parents to take their children out, although others leave because they win places at highly competitive local sixth forms at 16. "In that way we are victims of our own success," says Savjani.

However, because most pupils will never have eaten a hamburger, or had an alcoholic drink, and live in close, extended families, the teen life of other English sixth formers can come as a shock. "I have had some come back. They couldn't handle it," says Savjani. And if they stay in the school's tiny sixth form, they know they will do well. One pupil has gone to Oxford, others have gone to Imperial College and Queen Mary College, in London, mostly to pursue science-based vocations such as medicine or engineering. Arts A-levels are less popular, except for those with their eyes on a future in law, although there is a lively cultural programme throughout the school. Girls study traditional Kathak dance; boys play the tabla; there are singing and drama lessons, and a recent stage performance was an East-West fusion of Medea.

The Swaminarayan community describes itself as a tolerant sect within a tolerant religion, and only a minority of pupils are devotees. However, the life of the school is intimately bound up with the life of the temple, which pupils see framed in the windows at the front of the school, its flags flying and its marble carvings gleaming. Pupils go there for assemblies, and two of its sadhus [holy men] are governors. Nevertheless, the school is determinedly outward-looking. Many teachers are non-Hindus, and pupils do a full array of after-school clubs, sports ("We are brilliant at cricket," says Savjani, "but we usually get thrashed at soccer!"), Duke of Edinburgh award schemes and school trips, which are seen as particularly important for extending inner-city pupils' horizons.

The school is also careful to avoid being "a little island in the middle of Neasden" by plugging its children into traditional British culture. It works with the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art to get senior school pupils to recite poetry and prose and "learn to speak with a BBC accent" to guard against the kind of slippage in spoken English that can develop in a school where everyone shares a similar accent. And a pantomime troupe comes to visit, "So they can learn all about that `Oh, yes he did!', `Oh, no he didn't!' business. It's part of being British," says Savjani. "We also have a nativity play at Christmas, unlike so many other schools these days who we hear are so scared of offending anyone. Our pupils have two sessions of RE a week. They study Hinduism, but they have exposure to other faiths."

The school follows the national curriculum, but does not do Sats tests at the end of Key Stage I, believing that at this age children are developing at very different rates. The pupils' concentration and commitment to study are clear in lessons. "This is pretty much the best school I've ever worked in," says Allison Witton, an Australian Year Six teacher.

"The children are so polite, and so respectful of you as a teacher, and the parents are so supportive. They're on your side if you ever have a problem, which you almost never do, and they help their children at home all the time. There's a real work ethic, and it means as a teacher it's much more fulfilling."

The school would like to grow by 100 or so pupils and to have a bigger sixth form, but would never want to get too big. "I think if you have good values, and are not too large, you can't go wrong," says Savjani. Especially, he points out, if you have families who are totally committed to education, and who have high expectations of the school, and of what they expect their children to achieve there.