A row has erupted in the heart of one of Britain’s wealthiest villages after local children were allocated places at a controversial Sikh school despite failing to name it on application forms.
More than a dozen children living in rural South Buckinghamshire – mainly from atheist or Christian families – have been told to attend the Khalsa Secondary Academy in September.
The school promotes strictly vegetarian meals, prevents pupils from bringing meat or fish in packed lunches, provides lessons in Punjabi and Sikh studies, promotes meditation and begins the day with prayers from Sikh scriptures.
It was opened in the village of Stoke Poges last year under the Government’s free schools programme – principally catering for large Sikh communities in nearby Slough and west London.
But a handful of local children from non-Sikh families whose parents who failed to name the school on application forms have now been allocated places for this September. It suggests the school failed to attract enough applicants in the first place – leaving spare places to be taken by local children.
In a statement, the school said it was run with a “Sikh ethos but inclusive to all”, with non-Sikh pupils not required to learn Punjabi and allowed to worship separately in a multi-faith prayer room.
It insisted the Sikh community had a “long tradition of integrating and enhancing the communities in which they live”.
But parents have been angered by the ruling which they claim will leave their children as a “lost” minority in the school. Some are reportedly considering using the European Convention on Human Rights to fight the ruling, backed by the National Secular Society.
It is the latest in a series of rows over the academy which has already provoked powerful local opposition from villagers.
They insist the village is too small to support an 800-pupil secondary school – particularly when large numbers of children are being bussed in from towns between four and 14 miles away.
Stoke Poges is best known for the exclusive Stoke Park estate which featured in the James Bond film Goldfinger and was once named as having the eighth highest concentration of £1m properties sold in Britain.
One father, an atheist, who asked not to be named, told how his 10-year-old daughter had been allocated a place at the school even though he selected two other neighbouring comprehensives on an application form.
“We are horrified,” he said. “It’s very much a Sikh school with Sikh values. I’m not religious and my daughter is just going to be lost in a school like this.”
Another said: "We’re not a religious family so it's clearly inappropriate for our children to be educated at a school with an overtly religious ethos."
Saera Carter, vice-chairman of Stoke Poges Parish Council, said: “In a school like this, it’s inevitable that the culture of the faith will run right through it – affect everything that goes on – and that’s something that not many non-Sikh parents would choose.”
The Department for Education purchased a £4.5m office block in Stoke Poges for the school to open in 2013 after failing to find a suitable home elsewhere.
The school is sponsored by the Slough Sikh Education Trust, admitting 120 pupils a year.
But the local district council has refused to allow the academy to remain open beyond a temporary initial one-year agreement, citing concerns over traffic and noise. The DfE is appealing the decision.
According to Buckinghamshire County Council, 28 places have been allocated to county children at Khalsa Academy, but only 12 of these actually named it on application forms. The vast majority of applicants were from outside the county.
The school requires all Sikh pupils to take part in Punjabi and Sikh studies but allows non-Sikhs to learn an alternative foreign language.
It appeals for non-Sikhs to join in collective worship – citing the “universal nature of Sikhism” – but insists alternatives are found for those of other or no faiths who refuse.
The school principal, Rose Codling, has also insisted that the academy’s strict vegetarian policy was implemented on health grounds, not because of the Sikh faith, telling a local newspaper: “You only have to follow the publicity concerning scandals around cheap quality meat, horsemeat, BSC, chicken and salmonella, to understand many people’s concerns.”
Mike Appleyard, Buckinghamshire Council deputy leader, said nine-in-10 local children were “allocated their highest preference secondary school”, adding: “Where this hasn't been possible, possibly because an application missed the deadline, we have allocated a place at the nearest school with an available place. The Khalsa Academy free school is included in the allocation process.”
Both the school and Slough Sikh Education Trust were unavailable to comment despite requests.
A statement on its website says: “At Khalsa Secondary Academy, we value diversity and encourage religious leaders from all faiths in shared learning.
“Whilst the Khalsa School is a Sikh faith school, we provide an environment for those that wish to follow any faith as well as those that do not have a faith.”
But Stephen Evans, campaigns manager at the National Secular Society, said: “Leaving parents with no option other than to send their child to a school with a religious ethos they do not share clearly fails to respect their right to have their religious and philosophical convictions respected.”