Forest Gate gurdwara school inspiring young Sikhs for 35 years

Students study Panjabi during a class at the Ramgarhia School which celebrates its 35th anniversary

Students study Panjabi during a class at the Ramgarhia School which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. - Credit: Archant

Newham’s Ramgarhia Sikh community arrived in east London in the 1960s, meeting in a number of places to worship before settling in their current home in Neville Road, Forest Gate.

Students enjoy an assembly at the Saturday school.

Students enjoy an assembly at the Saturday school. - Credit: Archant

An early priority for these immigrants was to set up their own Gurdwaras and begin teaching the Panjabi language.

Tarlok Singh Sura – who was born in East Africa - came to the UK in 1968 and became a college lecturer in 1974. He recalled the early days.

“The early 1970s were difficult times due to an unfamiliar environment,” Tarlok said.

“But people started to buy houses, get married, have children and put down roots in Newham,” he added.

By 1982 - and using his experience in education - Tarlok laid the foundations for the Ramgarhia Punjabi School, originally hiring 12 classes in Stratford and then Lister School.

Since 1996 the school has been located in a purpose-built building at Plashet Road with a four-storey building including six classrooms, an assembly hall, computer room, library and staff room.

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The Saturday school now has close to 160 students on roll - learning the Panjabi language, religion and culture - and ranging in age from six to 16.

The school celebrates its 35th anniversary this year and it has educated more than 1,600 pupils during that time with more than 800 of them earning a GCSE in Panjabi with 93 per cent graded from A* to C.

“All parents saw their children benefit immensely by gaining speaking, reading and writing skills, so it became a very popular school in Newham and neighbouring boroughs,” Tarlok said.

“The best thing was to see how keen the children were to learn, becoming more confident and more respectful,” he said.

For Manjit Kaur Matharu - who has been headteacher since the start - the decision to join the school was easy.

Manjit - who trained as a teacher in Nairobi where she lived with her husband before moving to Newham in 1968 - speaks five languages including Urdu, Swahili and Hindi.

“Up until 1982, the Panjabi in our Gurdwara were taught by volunteers and priests and the provision was not professionally organised,” she said.

“So it was good timing when Ramgarhia Sikh Gurdwara asked me to take on the teaching responsibility.”

On the first day, Manjit had five youngsters in her class, but four weeks later the number had risen to 60.

The most successful years were between 1986 and 2004 as there were around 460 children on roll though in the last few years numbers have dropped as many Sikh families have migrated away from Newham.

The mission statement for Ramgarhia Panjabi School is to give language, religion and culture equal status and the staff believe all three are vital for the development of proud young Sikhs.

“All are very important for the development of a child so they can be a good citizen and member of the community,” Manjit said.

“The school has been successful because of the dedication, commitment and teaching experiences of staff coming from abroad and here in the UK,” she added.

The school now employs six teachers, some of whom have been with the school for 30 years.

Tarlok – who retired in 2014 and managed the school for 31 years - said: “It’s a very popular school.

“Gaining an understanding of Sikhism helps understanding of other religious beliefs,” he added.

“It is great to see very young children arrive at the school and leave after four to five years growing in maturity and confidence, and communicating in another language, appreciating their heritage and having access to their own religion and literature.”