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'Seva' is secret of Sikh success

A Red Turban Day for Comic Relief is just one of the many ways pupils at Europe's only state Sikh secondary are applying traditional values in modern London. Michael Shaw reports

THE Sanskrit word seva is not one that usually turns up in school inspection reports.

But inspectors used it to describe Guru Nanak secondary in west London, the only state-funded Sikh school in Europe. "The commitment of all to the Sikh values of trust, respect and seva (selfless service for others) is a very positive influence," they wrote.

Pupils agree that religious values are key to the success of Guru Nanak, named after the 15th-century founder of the Sikh faith.

Sahib Lall Singh, 15, said: "Basically seva means you do stuff and you don't expect anything in return. Like helping the teacher tidy up after class, or raising money for Comic Relief." Pupils put their own spin on Comic Relief this month with a Red Turban Day.

Their secondary sparked debate over faith schools in 1999 when the Government granted it voluntary-aided status.

Four years later, Guru Nanak has just undergone its biggest test: a visit from the Office for Standards in Education.

Inspectors were impressed, describing it as a very good school with outstanding leadership. "Students achieve because they are keen to learn and taught well in a harmonious environment," they said.

Guru Nanak's success is, perhaps, unsurprising. Before 1999 it was independent - charging annual fees of pound;1,400. It is also heavily oversubscribed: while most pupils are from Hayes and neighbouring Southall, several come from the other side of London.

The proportion of pupils who get five Cs or better at GCSE was 75 per cent last year, compared with an average of 42 per cent for other state schools in the borough. Pupil numbers at Guru Nanak have risen from 85 in 1999 to 350, and it hopes to double its roll if it can expand on to green-belt land.

Its 25 teachers come from a range of backgrounds and faiths, yet all keep their heads covered with scarves or baseball caps.

Pupils have weekly lessons in Sikh studies, exploring scriptures and history and examining current events from a Sikh perspective. Even the handful of non-Sikh pupils, such as Christian Jonathan Ratnam, aged 13, now know all the words of Sikh hymns.

Teacher Sardani Navleen Kaur said that Sikh studies had proved liberating for girls.

"Punjabi culture says 'Stay home and cook the dinner', while the Sikh religion says there should be equality," she said. "So we get girls going home and refusing to do the vacuuming unless their brother does it too."

Evidence of this gender equality can be found in the school's compulsory design and technology classes. Girls outnumber the boys in woodwork and metalwork classes, and Indian television crews were apparently astonished to find Sikh boys cooking in food technology.

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