Public Hindu school a first for Britain

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Studens at Krishna-Avanti primary school in Edgware, England. (Image from krishna-avanti.org.uk)

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Story by Kevin Bocquet, PRI's "The World"

In the United States, religious schools are private institutions; but in Britain, many religious schools are funded directly by the government. They are also controversial. Some critics in Britain feel that state funded religious schools segregates students based on faith. Others say the schools often attract too many students from well off families. 

Such criticism didn't stop the opening of Britain's first ever state funded Hindu school. It's an elementary school that cost almost 20 million taxpayer dollars to set up. 

When you catch your first glimpse of the Krishna-Avanti primary school, it's a very striking building. It looks rather like an up market Alpine ski lodge. Across the front of the building, all sorts of Hindu decorations, paintings of lotuses and conch shells. So far, the school has only two classes of children age four to six. It'll take another five years to fill all the classes, and by then there'll be nearly 250 children. All these pupils come from Hindu families.

But the head teacher of the Krishna-Avanti school, Naina Parmur, says they are deliberately forging links with other schools in the area.

"We've got a wonderful link with the local Jewish school and of course other local schools," said Parmur. "Our actual fundamental mission is to understand that every human being, every living thing is a spirit soul and that spirit soul transcends race, class, gender. In a way we're just applying our faith."

Rabbi Jonathan Romaine chairs the Accord Coalition which campaigns against state funded religious schools. He was particularly disappointed that the UK's first Hindu school was built in Harrow, an area with an excellent reputation for racial integration.

"The inevitable social effect is they are separating, they're segregating, those children," said Romaine. "They're almost sort of locking them off in a sort of academic ghetto and they are not going to meet children from other faiths."

It's not just the children who are being separated, it's the adults too, because the parents will no longer meet outside the school gate, or at the school fete or at parent/teacher's evenings.

Like every state funded religious school, the Krishna-Avanti teaches the government mandated national curriculum. That includes educating the children about all the major world faiths. But there is also a heavy emphasis on Hinduism, and that's what the parents say they want for their children.

"I want my children to be imbibed with those principles of good qualities of truthfulness, honesty, humility, forgiveness, and also to understand that there's something higher in life than just the material things," said one parent.

"Each and every other faith have their own schools except Hindu school," said another parent. "So this is the first state school and that's stopped me sending my son back to India for education. So he can have education here."

In addition to the money it received from the government, the school has raised millions locally to build a small temple within the school complex. It's now very over-subscribed, with around four or five applicants for every place available. 

Nitesh Gor, Chair of the School Board, says while some Hindu families may move into the area because of the school, this won't lead to the creation of a Hindu ghetto.

"There will be a number of individuals who may move to the area," said Gor. "But of course you'll see transition between other Hindu families moving out of the area, and I think the important thing to bear in mind here is how integrated they are within the community, and what else is going on in the community for them to be involved in. I think that's the important thing to bear in mind."

Around a third of state funded schools in England -- more than 6,500 -- have some kind of religious connection, mostly with the major Christian denominations. And now that the Hindus finally have their first public primary school, they hope to establish state secondary schools in London and in Leicester.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."