Premeditated approach

17th May 1996 at 01:00
Norma Cohen visits a school which combines Eastern religion with music, maths and Sanskrit in a search for spiritual awareness. Perched on a high stool overlooking a leafy, Kensington square, a five-year-old boy peers at a score. It's 8.15am and he's learning the tonic triad. This is nothing unusual to fellow pupils at St James Independent Junior Schools (maxims: "truthfulness, harmlessness, never careless, magnanimity"), for whom instrumental and singing lessons ripple through the day.

Downstairs, under-sevens sing a Mass. Another class prepares to sing a Purcell round by humming. In the adjacent boys' school, a class of eight-year-olds gives a spirited rendering of a Mozart horn concerto.

In an unusual environment where music, meditation and philosophy form the spiritual foundation, emphasis is on the finest material available, says headteacher Paul Moss, a former working-class boy from a mining family in Chesterfield. His enthusiasm for English literature, particularly Shakespeare, filters through to pupils, who learn poetry "by heart rather than by rote" alongside Christian and Eastern, especially Vedic scriptures.

Housed within the School of Economic Science, St James was set up by parents and students 21 years ago, inspired by its search for "the truth" through economics and philosophy. The School's founder, Leon Maclaren, encountered the Maharishi in the Sixties and so embraced meditation. Rather than adopting a sectarian vision, says Moss, the school seeks to find a unity behind all religions. "Parents find a nourishment here in which the child can expand. "

The junior school exudes a liveliness that seems to confound scepticism directed at its parent, the School of Economic Science. A culturally diverse, socially-mixed intake, with a third Asian pupils, shows that parents make huge sacrifices to send their children to this fast-growing, non-selective establishment offering a traditional education, old-fashioned family values and loving discipline with a spirit of service. Parents help prepare the vegetarian lunch, some in part exchange for fees.

Each lesson begins and ends with a Sanskrit prayer or dedication. Staff meditate morning and evening, "bringing their whole being to stillness in body, mind and heart when they arrive," says Moss.

Within the Georgian assembly room, a swaddled teddy bear leans against a chair as five to nine-year-old girls in art smocks embark on a three-part recitation of Hamlet's "What is man that thou dost care for him?" Before assembly proper starts, Moss introduces a quiet moment, indicating the prayer position. Calm prevails as pupils and staff utter the familiar "Om paramat manay nama" (to the Lord a bow). Today's assembly features a debate on love. Moss is keen on "vitalising the big ideas", encouraging his pupils to deal in "the fire of speech". You have to "speak the truth into existence".

the model for handwriting is medieval and Gothic texts. The school has developed its own reading scheme inspired by scripture, myth and ancient epics. Drama productions delve into the Bible, the Odyssey, Ramayan and Pilgrim's Progress. Mathematics is based on the sung learning of tables with an insight into arithmetic "sutras": the significance and laws of numbers. Six-year-old boys work happily from calligraphy boards "keeping hand and eye at the right level and preserving straight backs". All use fountain pens competently. Calculators are not allowed: "Computers bring in a smaller, limited world, " says Moss.

Among a plethora of activities squeezed into a day running from 8am till 3.45pm, philosophy and Sanskrit are taught from four and a half, Greek from age nine. As no Sanskrit textbooks exist, the school (the only one teaching Sanskrit grammar to A-level and producing Oxford scholars) has produced its own.

Senior Girls' Head Laura Hyde lauds Sanskrit as "an intellectually superb training in its grammatical precision and orderliness, more taxing than Latin and Greek. Within its extensive alphabet families, there are the five tongue positions: guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental and labial. If you learn to speak with that sort of precision, it cleans up the speech. You don't get too much slovenly London drawl."

Learning the sounds of individual characters, reception class children point to their face and hair, chanting Sanskrit names and learning the five vowels. Upstairs in Janet Grainger's class, eight-year-olds learn declensions, write simple sentences and read the stories of Sita Rama. Next door, boys standing on chairs belt out a Yeats' translation of a famous text from the Bahgavad Gita. Warwick Jessop challenges his class in a discourse on Gandhi's favourite book on knowledge.

Downstairs, Therese Glover immerses a sponge in water to trigger a philosophy session on air and space. "This is a dead creature from the sea. Dead is nothing to worry about."

Building up to the school's Mayday jamboree at the sports ground, Ann David and pupils carry their maypole across the road to the church hall. From four and a half, they've been absorbing the basics of Vedic classical dance, developing intricate steps and rhythms needed to convey the great mythological stories. Within these complex eye and hand patterns, every foot is in step.

Children move up to the senior school at age 10, when voluntary meditation is introduced at the beginning and end of the day. "Once the practice becomes established in their life," says Hyde, "it's a way of coming to deep peace, of refining the energy and maintaining the clarity they have when they are young. When they come up against challenge: a test, or something they might be frightened of or upset by, they turn to meditation. It gives them great strength and stability; they don't go off the rails. We have no rows, bullying or drugs problems."

There's a thoughtful, then peaceful silence as 16 lively 10-year-olds sit with eyes screwed up, flickering, or serenely still. They say: "You go still everywhere and forget all your troubles, just for a moment . . . It's like letting go of everything outside . . . If your mind's very busy, I find it helps calm and control it, especially when I'm late in the morning and haven't done my homework properly . . . it stills you, the day settles down . . . It's easier some days than others, but if you really concentrate on the mantra and try not to scratch, you feel you look at things in a happier way, you have more enthusiasm . . . It's very useful before exams with a lot to remember. It brings all the buzzing to rest. Everything seems a bit better."

While rebellion seems rare, I still wonder what happens to unruly emotions that can't be talked or reasoned away, and to girls who don't comply with the school's conception of their "differing nature and functions" to boys. "The roles tend to become confused; they need to be clarified" says Hyde.

Pupils, however, seem happy, well-adjusted and highly motivated. "You can't fault the school morally and spiritually," says parent June King. "There's love and dedication on both sides between teachers and parents. What strikes you is the total commitment to the children's well-being. The results are self-aware, thinking, questioning, independent people."

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