Hindu parents have gained the opportunity to send their children to a state-funded Hindu primary school for the first time in the UK with the official opening this month of the Krishna-Avanti Primary School in Edgware, London.
Until now, the UK has had voluntary-aided faith schools from each of the six major world religions except Hinduism. The inclusive ethos of the Krishna-Avanti school and its attached nursery aims to ensure its pupils will enjoy a multi-cultural education and develop respect and understanding for other views and beliefs.
But there have been concerns that some stated-funded faith schools and early years settings are less than tolerant and inclusive.
While faith schools are allowed to give priority to children of their faith, a spokeswoman from the Department of Children, Schools and Families says it would be unlawful to refuse admission to children not of the faith if places were available.
The School Admission Code does not apply to early years settings, but the Early Years Foundation Stage says providers must promote equality of opportunity and anti-discriminatory practice and must ensure that every child is included and not disadvantaged because of ethnicity, culture or religion, home language, family background, learning difficulties or disabilities, gender or ability. The spokeswoman adds, 'It is our expectation that providers should apply these requirements to their admission policies.'
The EYFS does not specify particular religious festivals that should be celebrated, but the requirement under Personal, Social and Emotional development is that children should be provided with experiences and support that help them to develop a positive sense of themselves and of others.
The early learning goals state that by the end of the EYFS, children should:
- have a developing awareness of their own needs, views and feelings and be sensitive to the needs, views and feelings of others
- have a developing respect for their own cultures and beliefs and those of other people.
- understand that people have different needs, views, cultures and beliefs that must be treated with respect.
There have been concerns raised about settings working exclusively in languages other than English, but the EYFS expects practitioners to have a competency in English and that they should be supporting children's developing skills in English communication, language and literacy.
So how do faith-based early years settings put these requirements into practice?
'We talk about other faiths and festivals with the children, such as Christmas,' says Zaibunnisa Khatri, manager of the Al Madina Nursery School housed in the basement of the of Regent's Park Mosque in London. She set up the nursery in 1998 to care for three children of mosque employees and it has now grown to a 30-place setting, which is over-subscribed and has a waiting list.
All the children are Muslim. But Ms Khatri stresses, 'We do not live in isolation. We help the children develop a knowledge and understanding of the world from a very young age.
'It is our duty as professionals to give them this knowledge so as they grow, they are comfortable with other people in the community. It is a world where people are doing things in the name of Islam that we don't accept. We want our children to understand and respect each other's faiths, so we have different stories. We talk about Christmas time and the children put in their own ideas.'
The main language used in the nursery is English, but children can learn Arabic. Cultural festivals - Kurdish, Somali, Bengali - are celebrated at the nursery. 'Everybody has a weakness for food, and we celebrate festivals with food and the children dress up.'
Children of all faiths and none are welcomed by Penny Vaughan-Pipe, proprietor of the Broadstone Christian Nursery in Dorset. 'We have had Jewish children here, and Jehovah's Witnesses.We respect their beliefs if they need to stand out from any activity.
'The nursery was started 20 years ago by my mother, a retired head teacher, as a Christian service for young children and their families because of our faith and belief. We felt Christian values were disappearing: loving your Mum and Dad, having respect for one another, being kind to each other. Ironically these values are now covered by Personal, Social and Emotional development in the EYFS.'
Prayers are said throughout the day, from a welcome prayer to blessings at snack and meal times, but they are not imposed and some children do not join in.
'The Christian ethos is explained to prospective parents when they first visit and they are shown copies of the prayers, which are hung on the nursery walls.'
The EYFS continues the requirement of the former Foundation Stage Curriculum Guidance that children should be given the opportunity to develop an awareness of their own and other people's communities, cultures, faiths and beliefs, says Catherine Alderson, an Early Years Advisory Teacher in Harrow, the borough in which the Krishna-Avanti school is located.
'The EYFS underpins what we were doing and gives scope to carry on, but we don't feel it is anything new,' says Ms Alderson.
The Harrow early years team worked with its local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education and developed RE storysacks for loan to local settings. At the launch, people told stories from each other's cultural bases to underline the need to be aware of other cultures and faiths. So the story of Moses was told by a Jew using the prophet's Islamic name.
'Practitioners are not necessarily going to know a great deal about cultures or faiths other than those they have experienced,' says Ms Alderson. 'These sacks are at a level that is right for the children and they act as a reference point for practitioners.'
Some focus on specific festivals, while others feature faiths. So, for example, there are models of a mosque and a synagogue.
'We are not trying to teach any one faith or any one person's faith. What we try to do is look at the similarities between different faith experiences. 'If we were looking for example at a celebration, we would see what was happening and what it has in common with celebrations in different faiths - being together as a family, sharing food, giving presents.'
Through the Westminster early years network, Mrs Khatri at the mosque has met other nursery managers with whom she arranges exchange visits of the children and staff. The children are taken on outings around London, and she hopes in future to take them to other major places of worship.
While the Broadstone Christian setting does not celebrate other faiths as such, the children pack up gifts for a peace project in Israel with their presents going to both Jewish and Muslim children.
Mrs Vaughan-Pipe says, 'We want to teach the children understanding and respect and that people live differently and have different beliefs and ways of thinking.'
INCLUSION AT KRISHNA-AVANTI
'We are a very inclusive school,' says Sandra Clark, acting deputy head teacher and nursery teacher at the Krishna-Avanti Primary School, the UK's first state-funded Hindu school.
The 26-place nursery, which opened in September, is already over-subscribed. 'We had a request from a Muslim child, but places by priority go to Hindu children. We have two Muslim colleagues among the staff,' says Ms Clark.
'Fifty per cent of our teaching is in faith and 50 per cent is multi-faith, because we want to create an awareness, appreciation and celebration of other cultures and faiths.
'We start this very young. The children in nursery have assemblies on Buddhism and we had a Christmas nativity musical with the children dressed as stars and angels.
'The parents are keen that Christianity is celebrated, because many of them attended Christian schools in India and have a strong attachment. The local Anglican priest visits us regularly.
'We made Christmas decorations and had a Christmas cake. We talked about gift-giving and sharing love and the children made Christmas presents for their parents. A parent-governor organised a Christmas fete, and we had an Asian Santa Claus.'
The day starts with prayers. 'There is a small temple within the nursery and a little shrine and offering trays. Around the walls are pictures of different incarnations of Krishna.
'The main language is English, but the children sing and say prayers in Sanskrit.
We have our own temple in the school grounds, which the children go to once a week for chanting and prayer. There is a lot of alliteration and rhyme in Sanskrit prayers and it helps the development of the children's language and communication.
'We had art week last week. when two local artists came and worked with the children painting massive pictures to celebrate the festivals of Shivratri and Gaura Purnima. Later, during the spring term, we will celebrate Easter.
'The school has links with a Jewish school in Hertfordshire and Year One pupils from the two schools did exchange visits to celebrate Hanukkah and Divali together.'
Krishna-Avanti lodged for a while on the premises of a neighbouring special needs school and forged close links with the staff and pupils, which continue. 'Every Friday, a group of disabled children come to us for lunch and to play. Their children have benefited academically from the link, and our children are benefiting by learning about diversity and disability.'