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State-funded Faith School “the most ecological in England”

April 27, 2010:

A faith school has been evaluated as the most ecological school in England. It is not, however, one of the 6500 Christian, Jewish and Muslim schools throughout the country, but the UK’s first state-funded Hindu school, based in Harrow, North London. It was conceived because the trustees decided that one of the criteria of a Hindu school is one that is kind to the environment, which they realised partly through being involved with ARC's early work, following HRH Prince Philip's initiative to encourage faiths in conservation.

Eco Friendly Building

The environment is one of the key responsibilities of Krishna-Avanti Primary school – in terms of building, technology, landscaping and lessons. Seventy percent of the heating comes from ground source heat pumps; the timber structure is eco-friendly timber structure; hardwood larch cladding; sedum roofs to help with rainwater harvesting; a sophisticated building management system monitoring heating, oxygen concentration and natural light.

The project has achieved a UK BREEAM Schools ‘excellent’ rating with a score of 75.91%. This is currently the highest rating score of any school in England. According to BREEAM, in order to win an award, each building must have excelled in every environmental category from Energy to Ecology “and therefore winners represent a holistic approach to delivering environmental sustainability.”

Important too – which some eco-designers can forget, and which surprisingly is not one of the criteria for BREEAM – they have created a place of beauty. In the middle of sprawling north London suburbia, Krishna-Avanti has managed to create truly tranquil surroundings.

Eco-friendly Ethos

There is a strong environmental ethos at the school, which comes out both in the curriculum, and also in everything else. True to the Hindu ethic the children’s diet is entirely vegetarian and delicious, with an emphasis on locally grown, organic, freshly prepared food. It is the UK’s first vegetarian state school, and it is the only school in Harrow that has its own kitchen (and the food is so good that all the children choose to eat there rather than bring their own. The cook is a Brahmin, who offers the food to Krishna before serving it to the school. The children also learn about food – they grow it (each class has a patch of garden) and they learn about cooking it. The grounds have vegetables, flowers and fruit, as well as places to play and to walk.

Hinduism teaches the equality of all living things.

How the school came about

Krishna-Avanti started in 2003 as a simple idea, backed by a great deal of enthusiasm. In 2005, after two years of consultation with the local council, I-Foundation was given an £11.1 million pound central government allocation, and began raising the additional £2.4 million from the Hindu community that was needed to make it an excellent, eco-friendly, beautiful site, with a marble temple at its heart.

The foundation – I-foundation - discovered an appropriate site, in Harrow in North London, which is the most religiously diverse borough in the country. It had previously been used as a football field “but the players were frustrated at the poor changing facilities, so it was part of the deal that we helped them build some great changing rooms at their new location.” Planning permission was granted in 2007 and in 2008 construction started, and that same year a reception class was taught at a different site, which meant that in September 2009, with everything finished on time, Krishna Avanti School could open formally with two classes of 30 children each: reception and year 1. Each year a new reception class will come in, so that by 2014 there will be a full complement of pupils.

There are 48,000 Hindus in Harrow. The school was founded largely through the energy and funding of the ISKCON tradition of Hinduism, although it is open to Hindus of all traditions.

The Thinking

There was a great deal of consultation with the community to see what is a Hindu school. But everyone was agreed that if it was truly Hindu it should be truly environmental. Hinduism stresses that happiness comes from within, that life’s main purpose (and the purpose therefore of schooling, working, building, painting etc) is to discover one’s spiritual nature and the peace and fulfilment it brings. It emphasizes the importance of simple lifestyles, and recognizing that all living beings are sacred because they are elements of God.

The school is one of the important models for other Hindu communities both in the UK and overseas. Through their creation of Nine Year Environmental Plans under the umbrella of the Bhumi Project, supported by ARC/UNDP are looking to incorporate care for the natural world into all aspects of their thinking about the future.

The Architecture

It’s built on the Vastu Shastra square grid - an ancient north-south architectural square grid arrangement of buildings which is almost always used for temples, but increasingly is being looked at by contemporary architects. Architect Brian Vermeulen (SP) architect explained how it was important for the temple to be visible from every room. Other things he needed to consider were: the need to be able to circumnambulate, or walk around the school; the fact that the children and adults would take their shoes off at the entrance; planning a route from the kitchen to the back of the altar to enable the chef to take the food to the deity; building showers near the kitchens. The gardens were important as a living manifestation of our relationship with the natural world.

The temple was carved by some 200 people in the Indian town of Makrana and includes scenes from the Bhagavad Gita. It is the same marble as was used for the Taj Mahal.

The day at Krishna Avanti

The day starts at 8am with morning worship of about 10 minutes, focusing each week on a verse relating to the Bhagavad Gita. Classes follow the national curriculum – at this age concentrating on numbers, literacy, music and art. At morning break the children say a little prayer, eat fruit, and play for 20 minutes. At some point in the morning they have a short yoga class with deep breathing and meditation. They wash hands for lunch, which they eat sitting cross-legged on the floor – which is good for their digestion. The dinner staff are involved in the teaching, organising structured, constructive play during the lunch break.

Over-subscribed

The school started off with fewer children than it had places (there were 23 children in the first year out of 30 places, with parents uncertain about what the school would involve). This year it was three times over-subscribed: for next year it has already been five times over-subscribed. If they decide to rely on selection by catchment area rather than instituting a lottery over a larger area, they now would have to only accept children living within half a mile of the premises: which at least ensures that most pupils will be able to walk to school.

Not all pupils are from Indian families; some 10% of pupils are white, a mix that gives a "slightly different flavour to the school".

The Curriculum

The Vedic tradition is not to learn in linear ways but by making links and patterns. And as far as possible – while following the national curriculum – the curriculum tries to be true to that. They learn Indian and western classical music, British sign language, gardening, art. There is also a huge emphasis on the emotional curriculum, says head teacher. Pupils from Woodlanders Primary School, a special school nearby, come for lunch once a week. “We celebrate Christmas and Hanukah as well as Diwali – we have links with local Jewish school and share what’s important.”

They are actively sharing good practice - a team of teachers and strategists from the Netherlands were there in February; they would welcome engagement with other British schools.

What people say

“It’s a wonderful school. Our only regret is that Harrow beat us to it.” Mike Freer, councillor from the neighbouring borough of Barnett.

“My son learns about not being wasteful. Sometimes he will turn off the tap at home. Don’t waste Krishna’s energy, he tells me. Another thing I like is how they learn about the closeness with nature. In his own way he understands the principle of an ecological environment.” Shri Radhika volunteer, and parent of a child in the reception class.

“We didn’t know if it would work: but failure wasn’t an option,” Nitesh Gor, chairman of the trustees.

A new school

The foundation behind Krishna Avanti is now planning to open a state-funded Hindu secondary school by 2015 – either in northwest London, to provide continuation for children at the primary school, or in Leicester, where there is a huge Hindu population. That school, which might cost up to £30 million, will also be designed to be ecologically true to Hindu beliefs about our place in this world, and the need to care about nature.

The Name

Krishna is one of the names of God, and means “all attractive”. Avanti is the name of the place where Lord Krishna is said to have gone to school. The name is designed to inspire a simultaneous attachment to both God and education.

Links

Catholic Eco Schools Newsletter
The School
BBC Story
ISKCON
The Guardian
PHOTOS
BREEAM

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