One of the only ISKCON schools to remain standing in Europe today is struggling, but continues to push on with new ideas for growth, full of faith in its ideals.
“There is so much research on the positive effect of giving children a joyful spiritual foundation and experience in the first years of their education, and we really believe that,” says Guru Charana Padma Dasi, who runs the Bhaktivedanta Manor Primary School in England with colleague Moksha Lakshmi Dasi. “And that is why we keep going.”
For the past couple of years, the school has worked very hard to stay afloat, worried that it would lose both students and teachers to the impressive Krishna Avanti, the first state-funded Hindu school in England, run by an ISKCON body and opened in late 2008. A school which incidentally, Guru Charana Padma supports and has been involved in, although she chooses not to work there but to continue trying to maintain and build the smaller school on Bhaktivedanta Manor property.
“It’s true that we’ve lacked support in the past, but now I feel we’re moving forward in a very positive way,” she says. “I have formed a governing body with some leading members of the community, and we’ve just been through a year-long process with a core team, of redefining our vision mission and values. As a result, we’re planning a relaunch of the school by January 2012—I’m not sure exactly what form that will take, but it will be something significant that will mark a new beginning..”
Just as inspiring, and even more heartwarming, is the fact that graduates from the recent and far past are returning to help the school either as teachers or by supporting it as new parents. And the school has plenty of graduates—it goes back a long way.
Originally set up in an ISKCON community in central England, the school had to start from scratch, and children and families experienced a huge upheaval when the property was sold and everyone moved to Bhaktivedanta Manor in 1985.
Although at first it was a boarding school with both girls’ and boys’ ashrams, it soon became simply a Krishna conscious dayschool with a morning porgram catered for children, as parents in ISKCON grew wary of ashrams due to an unfortunate history. And although the school started out at capacity, with forty children, numbers declined over the years.
It was in 1992, when her two daughters became of school age, that Guru Charana Padma, who had moved from her native Canada to England and married Kripamoya Dasa, became involved in the school in a supportive role.
“I had a passion for education and creating a safe and happy foundation from which a child could grow, develop and blossom,” she says. “My supportive role developed into a teaching role, then an administrative role, and eventually both, which is where I am now: being headteacher and teacher in the Early Years class. My daughters and my son have all long graduated from Bhaktivedanta Manor School, but I have continued in the service.”
The dedication of both Guru Charana Padma and her godsister Moksha Laksmi, who have seen the school through all of its stages, both good times and bad, and developed much experience along the way, has given it a strong element of stability.
The school has always moved along slowly yet steadily, without any stains to its reputation, and with excellent reports from government inspectors.
Today, it is back up to capacity in terms of student numbers, and has many unique approaches, activities, and benefits.
First off, of course, is the level of the education itself. The school follows the framework of the National Curriculum in Britain, into which teachers weave the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. There is a great focus on literacy and numeracy, as well as preparing the children to make a contribution to the world—both that of ISKCON and of the greater society.
“Research has shown that past graduates of ISKCON schooling systems were resentful that they did not receive the best education to prepare them for the world,” says Guru Charana Padma. “We help the children to think critically, debate, problem solve and really get to grips with their identity as devotees in the greater world around them.”
Creativity is very much at the heart of the school’s ethos, and the children use all aspects of it in their work—whether it’s design, artwork, computer-based projects, drama, or creative thinking. With a ratio of one teacher to ten children, the students also get an especially high amount of nurthuring and attention, justifying the establishment’s reputation as “A small school with a big heart” and prompting a 2008 Ofsted Report to say, “Relationships between adults and pupils are exceptionally good and as a result, pupils behave very well and their attitudes to learning are good.”
The school’s staff are also extremely committed to growth, and developing their curriculums and personal educational skills to excellence.
Both Guru Charana Padma and Moksha Lakshmi, for instance, went back to university to complete their degrees even as they continued teaching and managing the school. Moksha Lakshmi completed a degree in Early Years education, while Guru Charana Padma now holds B.A. honors degrees in Early Years Education and Primary School Education and School management.
The school is also currently developing its own thematic curriculum, wherein various important themes can be explored through literacy, numeracy, history, geography, art, design and of course spirituality. This makes learning much more relevant to the children, who better remember what they have learned through these experiences.
The school’s setting, at Bhaktivedanta Manor, is also a major benefit. It sits on acres of beautiful English countryside, with a working farm, dairy and goshalla, gardens, lake, eco gardens and a theater, all of which teachers try to use as part of the educational experience.
“We have three classrooms of mixed age groups with children ranging from four to eleven years old, but we take classes outside regularly,” says Guru Charana Padma. “We use the grounds for sports activities too… Although with the wonderful British climate, we do need more indoor spaces that we can use in all types of weather for sports, assemblies and school presentations.”
Another highlight of the school is its focus on Krishna conscious activities. Children have their own discreet morning program, which is very interactive and specifically focused on greeting the Deities, chanting on beads, and discussing Srimad-Bhagavatam. They also lead midday arati at the temple once a week, and participate in 24-hour kirtans on festival days. And they hold their own Rathayatra festival annually, in which the school children decorate their cart, prepare the offerings, and lead the procession and kirtan around the Manor, attracting the interest of all the community’s adult residents.
As well as a high level of participation in Krishna conscious spiritual and cultural activities, the school also prides itself in its “community cohesion.”
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“We have partnerships with other faith and non-faith schools, and regularly write and visit the students there, sharing about our lifestyle and beliefs,” Guru Charana Padma says. “We have also visited many other faith institutions and had representatives from them come and visit us. They are always impressed with the children’s abilities to ask questions, and discuss topics of a religious nature.”
So despite being the underdog, it looks like there’s a bright future for the small school with the big heart. This year, students will be doing a whole week of curriculum centered around National Vegetarian Week; taking one week of cycling training in which they will learn the rules of the road and how to cycle to school; doing an end-of-the-year stage production; and participating in many environmental activities including making wooden bird houses, their own compost, a living willow dome, and an environmental garden.
Meanwhile, the adults will be busy too—as well as relaunching the school in January after a year of intensive vision meetings, they’ll be making a promotional film about the school; redesigning the school website so that parents can keep up to date with events and their children's work; and exploring the possibility of applying for government funding, which would help the school become financially sustainable into the future.
“I do feel positive about what lies ahead,” says Guru Charana Padma. “I feel that we have turned a corner. Perhaps it is the richness of experiences that has kept us going onto this new horizon and that has kept parents choosing us.... we always seem to have something exciting on the go!”