Q: I’m not Buddhist – does this matter?
A: No, we welcome families from all spiritual and cultural backgrounds. Buddhism is well-known for being tolerant of all other faiths and cultures and recognises the moral teachings and truths that are central to all religions. Buddhists do not seek to convert others, only to share their teachings if asked to do so.
Q: How is Buddhism taught in the school?
A: Buddhism is not taught as a faith, but as a set of principles and tools for living a productive and fulfilling life. Children learn about Buddhism, but also about other faiths and world views. The key principles of Buddhism are taught in a practical way that helps children to understand both the world around them and to make sense of their inner feelings and emotions. They learn about cause and effect (in Buddhism known as karma), cooperation and change, and interdependence and impermanence. The five Buddhist precepts form a code of conduct enabling children to see how right action leads to positive outcomes (fulfilled lives).
Mindfulness is taught as a daily practice to help develop self-reflection, focus and concentration; short sessions work best for children and have a powerful and cumulative effect. We teach this in a variety of ways; we find that songs and actions work particularly well with younger children. To approach meditation physically we introduce children to the practice of yoga or movement education to develop mind-body awareness as well as coordination, balance and good physical health.
After a guided meditation, children are encouraged to share any insights or feelings they may have experienced during the practice. Former pupils cite these brief, regular mindfulness sessions as a positive part of their development and a support to their inner lives.
Q: What are considered the main benefits of a primary education based on a Buddhist ethos?
A: We believe that, along with the development of children’s confidence, self esteem and social skills, through daily reflection children gain a greater sense of responsibility and insight into their own unique contribution and place in the world. Through practice, children better understand their feelings and emotions and are more confident in expressing themselves effectively. Key principles such as kindness, sharing, focus and patience are taught as practical applications of Buddhism, alongside a quality academic education based on the national curriculum. Research indicates that children’s core personality traits and emotional responses are formed around the age of seven; the way they learn to relate to themselves and others during the primary school years is a key indicator of adolescent and adult behaviour. We believe that our approach equips children with core life skills as well as a sound academic education – wisdom as well as knowledge.
Q: Will my child fit into the mainstream educational system after The Dharma Primary School?
A: Academically and socially, children transition into senior or secondary school very successfully. They are usually excited about moving on to the greater challenges and diversity of secondary school education. We have received positive feedback from senior and secondary school staff, who describe former Dharma Primary School pupils as confident, expressive and focused. In the words of one former pupil, “The main difference between me and my friends at secondary school is that I am more able to be my own person and happier in who I am.” Some of our children go on to secondary education in the state sector, at schools such as Dorothy Stringer, Blatchington Mill and Varndean, and some continue in private education and have achieved scholarships for Brighton College, Brighton and Hove Girls School, Lewes Old Grammar and Shoreham College.
Q: You’re a fee-paying school, isn’t this rather elitist?
A: It would be wonderful if children could access our approach to primary education via the state system, but currently it is not possible for our school, (a school with a Buddhist ethos), to be state-funded. We have to charge fees to meet our running costs. The school is registered with the Charities Commission and we have approached various organisations for funding for a bursary scheme. Unfortunately, we have not yet been offered a funding award, so we are unable to offer bursaries at this time. However, we are continuing to explore new funding options and income streams that may allow us to alter our fee structure in the longer term. In order for more children to benefit from our approach we would welcome financial assistance to create a teaching programme and ‘toolkit’ that could be shared within mainstream primary schools and parents.
Q: Do you have any plans to become a Free School?
A: Free Schools are all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community. A proposed Free School must meet stringent criteria to be viable. In terms of our ethos, it would suit us to be able to offer our education for free.
We have looked into the possibility of becoming a Free School, but the amount of local government funding we would receive based upon our size, structure and pupil numbers would not meet our current running costs. As an existing enterprise our building is not big enough, nor can we house enough children to make us financially viable under the Free School scheme. The Free School movement is still shifting and changing and the regulations that govern it may change over the next few years, or a new government may introduce a new set of rules. In becoming a Free School we would have to adhere to an agreement set out by government, and in so doing might well lose our long term autonomy. We continue to monitor this situation for changes and ways that we might access such a programme.
Q: Is the school full of ‘hippies’? Is your approach out of touch with the real world?
A: The Dharma Primary School attracts families from a range of backgrounds. Our parents and carers share our ethos and want their children to benefit from a more rounded education; one that values emotional literacy as well as academic success. What we teach is grounded in common sense and our approach with regard to mindfulness is backed up by strong scientific evidence. We enable children to live more fully in ‘the real world’ by giving them the tools to lead successful and productive lives. Our qualified teachers are very committed and bring a broad range of teaching and work experience to the children and classrooms.
Q: I notice the children do not wear a uniform and are on first name terms with their teachers – why is this?
A: At the school’s inception it was decided that we would not have a school uniform, with the aim of creating a less institutionalised environment with a ‘family feel’. Most children wear similar clothes every day – usually trainers, jeans and a top. We ask that they do not wear anything with violent, inappropriate or offensive images or logos on. The children address their teachers by their first names to encourage and foster a more open and connected learning environment. The daily school programme is clearly timetabled and all classes are planned and structured and there is no question that teachers in our school are the authority. There are many child-centred activities but it is how the staff relate to the children, and the structures that the school puts in, that generates respect and deference.
Q:Do I have to become vegetarian? Is vegetarianism something you instill as part of your Buddhist ethos?
A: We do not expect children or families to be vegetarian. We teach our children to have reverence and respect for all things – people, animals and the planet, and to have consideration for the welfare of all living beings, but recognise that eating a vegetarian diet is a personal decision for families and individuals.
Q: What support can you offer for children with special needs?
A: Because we have small class sizes we are able to adjust learning expectations for individual children, whether they need extra help with basic skills, or support to push ahead in an area they are thriving in. We have a teacher and an assistant in each classroom and the ratio of teacher to children is typically no more than 1:10. This allows much more interaction and help to be offered than in many primary schools. As is standard in all primary schools, we have a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo) who works with specific children and individual educational plans (IEP’s) each week to assess and meet the children’s needs and progress. As a small independent school, we receive no funding for children with special needs without an appropriate EHCP. For children that may require additional support over and above what we can provide in class, we may ask parents for an additional financial contribution for either equipment or 1:1 support.
Q: Is the school full of children who just can’t cope with mainstream education?
A: We do not have a disproportionate number of children in the school with special needs or behavioural issues; we have the same percentage as might be expected at any other primary school in Britain. What we do have is a reputation for providing a nurturing and transformative environment for children with a variety of traits and talents, both boys and girls. Nearly every child leaving our school adjusts easily and well to mainstream secondary education without issue.
Q: How much homework do pupils get?
A: We do set small amounts of homework. Most homework we set is of a ‘habit-forming’ nature; spellings, reading and times-table practice. During school years three and four we also set homework which has a research element around topic work. In years five and six we set an equivalent amount and begin developing an independent study habit that instils a rhythm and a sense of focus. This is to prepare the children for greater homework expectations in secondary school.
Q: What do you offer in terms of sports, after school clubs and other non-academic activities?
A: We offer a variety of after-school activities dependent on what children and parents are looking for. The current clubs on offer can be found on the website. We can, are or have offered after-school care, chess club, science club, gardening, drama, music, animation and a film club. Periodically, the children are offered extra tutoring such as after-school maths.
The children enjoy participating in a variety of games and sports and play football against other local primary schools. We also teach hockey, basketball, rounders, squash, athletics, fitness, dance and movement, outdoor co-operative games and running. All pupils learn yoga each week and we participate in the annual ‘Let’s Dance’ show held at the Brighton Dome in March.
Q: What is a ‘puja’?
A: ‘Puja’ is the name given to various devotional and offering ceremonies practised across all Buddhist traditions. The word itself is derived from the ancient Sanskrit term for ‘flower’ and pujas probably developed from the custom of offering the Buddha flowers on his arrival in a particular place during his travels. At the Dharma Primary School, each class holds a short puja every day and on Fridays the whole school gathers at 9am for a weekly puja to which parents, relatives and visitors are also invited. Our weekly puja is the Buddhist equivalent of a school assembly and often includes a talk by our Head Teacher on a particular topic related to mindfulness, a short meditation and sometimes some chanting. It is also an opportunity for pupils to present some of their work – a different class will usually contribute each week, either reading out stories or poems, showing artwork or singing and performing. When pupils join and leave the school, they are each presented with a flower at a special puja, in reference to the origins of this ancient Buddhist practice.