In the shadow of the temple

25th June 2004 at 01:00
Dorothy Lepkowska visits an institution which bills itself as the first private Hindu school in the western hemisphere.

Eclipsed by its neighbour Shri Swaminarayan Mandir - the largest Hindu temple outside India - the Swaminarayan school feels like one of this country's best-kept education secrets.

The dour 1960s buildings are not what you expect from an independent school. Inside pupils stand to greet any adult entering the room, classes sizes are small and there is an air of tranquility.

The school, which caters for children aged two to 18, opened 12 years ago.

It was named after its founder Pramukh Swami Maharaj, after the temple bought the site of a defunct secondary school from Brent council in north London.

The buildings were to have been bulldozed. "But there was a feeling in the community of the need for a school. Within a year of the purchase it was up and running," said Mahendra Savjani, who joined as head in 1997.

"Many of our pupils are the children of Ugandan Asians who came here in the early 1970s. They could speak Gujurati but they could not read and write it. There was a whole generation growing up who felt they had missed out on maintaining their culture.

"Now those people are parents and they want more for their children. They are also concerned about some of the unsavoury aspects of Western life, such as alcohol, drugs and promiscuity," he said.

"We are not dictatorial in our approach but we do want to instil certain values in our children. The pre-pubescent years are particularly important."

While the 500-pupil school, where fees range from pound;1,470 to pound;2,160 a term, has a Hindu ethos, it is keen to maintain links with others.

Two years ago it joined the Independent Schools Council, and it competes in inter-school sport and drama competitions. It offers the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme.

Forty per cent of the senior school teaching staff are non-Asians, a recruitment policy that Mr Savjani is keen to maintain.

Last year more than 90 per cent of pupils passed at least five top grade GCSEs, and every upper sixth-former went on to university. Students favour elite universities such as Oxford and Imperial.

The education of girls is particularly important to the community. "We believe that if you educate a boy, then you only educate one person. But if you educate a girl, then you educate the whole family," Mr Savjani said.

From next year the school, which selects pupils to go into its senior school, will no longer put pupils through Sats.

"We found that they were not helpful for children whose birthdays are in July or August. It was clear they were later developers, particularly boys, so why put them through that?

"Because we have two forms it unwittingly created competition between teachers which we didn't feel was healthy.

"We had to explain to the governors and parents why we were doing this because everyone here is ambitious for the children. I think they understand now why it's for the best."

Another Voice 26

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