High School – we either loved it or loathed it (some of you reading this might be loving it or loathing it right now!) You made weird and wonderful friends of all ethnic backgrounds; played football and dominated the school field; played instruments in the Christmas concerts and sang in the school choir; got into trouble once, maybe twice, (several times in my case) and maybe even found time to study a tad?
Schools around the country generally have the same concrete blueprint of students and school mottos, but did mine? Well not quite: Naam Japna (Remembering God) Kirat Karna (Honest Living) and Vandke Chakna (Helping others) were my schools three mottos, which are also the three main principles of Sikhism. That’s right, I attended a Sikh Faith school for seven solid years, and it was an experience and a half!
Before I share my experience of Secondary/High School, let’s rewind a year prior to when I started. It was my induction day for year 7 and I was dressed in my primary school uniform – white blouse, short black skirt, tights and my hair braided into a French plait. I thought I looked rather smart for a 10 year old and hoped to make a good first impression. I did not expect the glaring and whispering as I walked into my soon-to-be classroom full of girls in salwaar kameez with chunnis on their heads, and boys in ramaals (bandanas) and patkas. I felt very out of place.
But after starting School and as my time in year 7 progressed, I felt very safe and part of a humble society I had never known before. Sikh Faith Schools are being established year on year around the UK, but having an entire school filled with students of the exact same religion can have its detriments as well as its benefits.
I think it’s safe to say that I knew very little about the Sikh way of life prior to starting Secondary School; my Primary School taught the basics and my family aided my understanding by taking me to the Gurdwara where I also learnt Punjabi. At Secondary School however, the morning assemblies were where our deep understanding of religion began. Our morning assemblies were not the typical presentation of certificates or English hymns, no-no! We would do Paath (reciting Gurbani); the whole school would sit amongst each other, shoes off, heads covered and sing along with a group of students playing the tabla and harmonium. Throughout my seven years at school, I learnt a handful of Shabads (verses from the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib) and how to play the harmonium, all from simply attending assembly every morning!
Now every school teaches the compulsory subjects of English, Maths and Science; well, my school taught two very odd compulsory subjects – Punjabi and Sikh Studies. Coming from quite a modern family who spoke to me in English whilst growing up, I was at quite a disadvantage to other students and found learning Punjabi very difficult. Sikh Studies however was much more interesting; as well as learning about the Gurus in detail, we were taught topical world issues such as Euthanasia and the Independence of India and Pakistan.
Assemblies: Check. Subjects: Check. Uniform: …? Every time I tell new people who I meet at University that my School uniform was a bright orange salwaar kameez, black chunni and blazer, they are gob-smacked at first, followed usually by fits of laughter. Yes, it did get hot to wear in the summer and girls were not allowed to have their hair open or covering their face, but I felt this expressed a sense of tidiness and respect. Plus, now I have five bright orange suits to wear around the house(!)
Secondary school for me has long ended and I started University in 2012. Like most of my fellow students, going to University allowed us to jump head first into a pool full of countless ethnicities, some very big personalities and with students from all over the globe, something new and unfamiliar to many of us. To be completely honest, I was very apprehensive before starting University; I had only grown up with Sikhs and found it very difficult to talk to non-Sikhs. My confidence was stuck and thus began my discovery of the detriments of life outside of Sikh Faith Schools. Many of my friends attended a Sikh Primary school as well as Secondary which further increased their difficulty to settle in well at University or their jobs. Although faith schools are required to admit approximately 5% of students from different faiths – and my Sikh school was no exception – this did not aid our understanding of different religions or teach us how to talk to students from different ethnicities. There was heavy pressure on learning a vast amount of Sikhism, from our vibrant history to the battles fought for freedom, but we did not learn about other religions at all! Luckily enough I was taught some of this in Primary Schools, but very little if no effort was put into teaching different religions from year 7 to 11.
On a positive note, there was very little bullying or racism within the school; these were not tolerated and were given the highest importance. Strangely though I have found that the lack of racism within the school could lead to a sense of vulnerability outside of it. Being in a School full of students from the same religion can reluctantly lead you to become quite close-minded about other religions; if you have little interaction with a particular group, your views about them can become unsophisticated and narrow. This might not be the case for all ethnic groups of students in my school, but I found that we could only broaden our minds once we left the School.
One aspect of School life not tolerated struck a nerve with many students – my School taught us not to have relationships with one another. As a Sikh school which taught Sikh values, we were taught relationships were futile during study years and you should only think about marriage when you are mature enough. We were taught we should see each other as brothers and sisters. But regardless, relationships formed year on year without fail or care to the school rule.
We were also inspired to remember God and follow a humble, Sikh life. But unfortunately, the emphasis of Sikhi on many students produced harm where the School only intended good. Some students would go against religion entirely, carrying out non-Sikh acts such as drug use, carrying hand weapons or engaging in sex outside of marriage and more worryingly before the legal age of consent. These type of acts occur in every school up and down the entire country (whether we want to accept it or not!) and I came to realise that Faith Schools were no exception.
Faith Schools around the country are continuously being established and Sikh Faith schools are growing in their number branching from West London to the Midlands. Their benefits of teaching Sikhi and inspiring students to lead a humble life, caring for the poor and working towards a successful career, are balanced out by the sometime lack of understanding for other religions and their ways of life. We would do well to remember that Secondary/High School finishes in the blink of an eye… it’s gone way too fast! Wherever students go, I would advise them to make the most of School life and be prepared to embark on life as it comes.