Tolerance brings self-fulfilment

16th June 1995 at 01:00
Do you have to be a qualified teacher to have a satisfying career working with children in school? Thousands of classroom assistants, nursery nurses and peripatetic teachers of music and dance will testify to the fact that you do not.

And as schools become increasingly confident about hiring specific skills and talents, it ought to become easier for enterprising people to leave unsatisfying jobs and do the kind of work that they have always dreamed of.

Roop Singh has had four jobs, moving from factory work to his present career as a self-employed consultant explaining the Sikh religion in schools.

In the mid-Seventies he was an engineering apprentice in Leeds. Then he worked in the family retail business. All the time the real love of his life was his religion and the work he was doing with young people in his temple.

The turban, he believes, marks out the Sikh "as a servant to the community who can be approached by anybody." But the young Sikhs he met sometimes found themselves attracting the wrong sort of attention. "They often had problems on the school playground, mostly to do with wearing the turban. I was available to tell them I knew what they were going through."

From there, it seemed natural to visit schools. "I'd say, 'If you get any problems, tell your teacher to give me a ring'."

In 1987 Roop Singh left the security of the family business for a post as a part-time community religious adviser with Bradford education authority.

"The salary barely covered the mortgage. People said I was mad, but I believed it was my duty to do it, and that God would look after me and guide me through."

In 1991, wanting to reach beyond the limits of his education authority, he set up his consultancy, Sikh Educational Advisory Services. This keeps him busy visiting schools across all age groups, doing assemblies and workshops and, above all, telling stories in both Punjabi and English.

Schools like him, and a great deal of his work comes from personal recommendation and repeat bookings. He admits that he has had neither training nor advice on how to set up his consultancy. "I think it comes down to common sense. You talk to people and you can tell if they're listening. If someone's not listening you pick that up and work out how you can do it better. I think it reflects the philosophy of Sikhism which itself is simple, basic and effective."

Roop Singh, it has to be said, has one asset which other freelance consultants and artists might envy, and that is his appearance. His robes and turban, his full black beard and engaging eyes make him, effectively, into a walking visual aid, and it is not surprising that he picks up a lot of business at the annual Education Show simply by being there at his tiny stand.

Reactions in the classroom vary widely, from the group of nursery children who took one look at him and burst into tears, to the class of white secondary pupils who openly voiced their grassroots racism. Both these cases, however, illustrate perfectly why he is doing his job, and he has learned how to cope. He handled the nursery children by going into their Wendy house and making a pretend cup of tea.

The secondary school pupils, meanwhile, got as good as they gave. "I'm a straightforward talker - a Yorkshire lad you know." Both groups were won over before their sessions ended.

Roop Singh has plans for diversifying into printed resources and workpacks. He recognises, though, that the strength of his work lies in his ability to present himself and his faith community to children, many of whom may have never had the opportunity to ask questions of a grown man in a turban.

Above all, he is now a fulfilled man, living out his personal faith, and telling as many children as he can reach, "that everyone has a rich culture and heritage, and that they should be proud of it, but at the same time should not ram it down peoples' throats, or hinder the beliefs of others."

Sikh Educational Advisory Services, 9 Woodland Grove, Leeds LS7 4HJ. Telephone 0113 2602484.

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