Page last updated at 00:42 GMT, Friday, 29 January 2010

North London Hindu school will be 'the first of many'

By Robert Pigott
BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent

Pupil and teacher at Krishna-Avanti Hindu school in north London
The charity behind the school says it plans to build more like it

With its wood-clad buildings, large expanses of light and grass-covered roofs, the Krishna-Avanti Primary School in Edgware, north London, proclaims its respect for the environment.

But the first state-funded Hindu school is also designed to make a statement about this famously well-integrated religion.

At its heart is the temple, above which rises a white tower, carved out of marble in India.

Inside, pupils chant each morning in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, before lessons that include meditation and yoga.

They will study the national curriculum, but also tend the garden and learn Hindu concepts such as the equality of all living things.

Krishna-Avanti was founded in 2008 and spent its first year in borrowed classrooms in a neighbouring school, but now it is celebrating its formal opening in its distinctive new building.

The school says it will help children to "realise their spiritual, moral and academic potential in a welcoming, secure and supportive environment centred on loving service to Lord Krishna".

But the focus on Lord Krishna - and aspects of the admissions requirements - have prompted criticism of the school, including from some Hindus.

They are concerned that the school follows too closely the model of a particular group, the Hare Krishnas.

Krishna-Avanti Hindu school in north London
At the heart of the school is the temple with its white marble tower

'Divisive by nature'

Jay Lakhani, of the education body the Hindu Academy, claims the focus on Krishna, rather than other manifestations of God, makes it unrepresentative of Hinduism as a whole.

Mr Lakhani - who is also a member of the group Accord which calls for faith schools to be open to pupils of all religions - claims its "exclusivist" approach will jeopardise Hindus' traditionally enthusiastic integration into mainstream society.

"If we are trying to take into account the needs of a modern society we cannot have a system which is divisive by nature, and say that unless you subscribe to this religion you are somehow outcast from this particular enterprise," he says.

"It is a very poor signal and a divisive system."

However, the school insists that it will be outward looking, spending as much time studying other religions as Hinduism.

To gain admission, pupils will need to get a temple priest to confirm that they are regular worshippers, although critics such as Jay Lakhani say it is quite possible to be a "cultural Hindu" without setting foot in a temple.

Comprehensive planned

The school is already oversubscribed, making some form of selection necessary.

It will grow as 30 new pupils join the reception class each year, until it reaches its capacity of 240.

The charity behind Krishna-Avanti, the I-Foundation, intends to build more such schools, with a comprehensive as its next project.

Pupils at Krishna-Avanti Hindu school in north London
Lessons will include meditation and yoga alongside the national curriculum

Harrow Council, which has 48,000 Hindus in its area - the highest concentration in the UK - has spoken in support of a Hindu secondary school.

However, it has warned that it cannot provide more space.

That is unlikely to curb the demand for further Hindu faith schools, partly because many Hindus believe that the time has come for them to celebrate their own identity.

They feel that Hindus have integrated so quietly and so thoroughly that their own traditions are in danger of being overlooked.

To them, Krishna-Avanti - set in a classical suburban landscape of winding roads fronted by brick semi-detached houses - symbolises that more distinctive identity.

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