South Morningside Primary in 50th anniversary tribute to school's first Asian teacher

Saroj Lal dedicated her life to fighting for racial equality and justice for ethnic minority groups

By David Mclean
Thursday, 20th August 2020, 7:30 am
Updated Thursday, 20th August 2020, 2:06 pm
Saroj Lal worked as a teacher at South Morningside Primary School between 1970-73.
Saroj Lal worked as a teacher at South Morningside Primary School between 1970-73.

History was made fifty years ago today, as Saroj Lal, dressed in her striking sari, introduced herself to a class of fresh-faced P3 pupils at Edinburgh’s South Morningside Primary School.

As the state school’s first ever BAME teacher and one of the first Asian teachers in Scotland, Mrs Lal wore her Indian identity proudly on her sleeve while bravely pulling down race barriers.

Born in Gujranwala, in what was then British India, Mrs Lal, who sadly died aged 82 in March this year, moved to Edinburgh with her young family in the 1960s and, after successfully passing her PGCE at Moray House, became a teacher at South Morningside on August 20, 1970.

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Mrs Lal dedicated her life to race relations and promoting equality.

She would go on to spend decades fighting prominently for equal opportunities. She would become director of the Lothian Racial Equality Council (LREC), and work closely with the Home Office, the NHS and the police.

Mrs Lal has now been recognised in the Scottish Parliament, campaign groups she worked alongside and attracted touching tributes from the likes of Blue Peter’s Valerie Singleton and a large contingent of former pupils who recall her fondly.

On Thursday, a ceremony is taking place at South Morningside Primary School to pay homage to a woman who helped enlighten young minds with her messages of multiculturalism and equality.

Lothians MSP Sarah Boyack said: “She broke down barriers in our education system, and will remain one of Scotland’s pioneering race relations activists, feminists and equality campaigners.”

Mrs Lal's former pupils have shared their memories of their Indian-born teacher.

South Morningside alumnus, Kathryn Wright, now Headteacher at Dean Park Primary, recalls being Mrs Lal’s class.

She said: “I thought that Mrs Lal was extremely stylish and beautiful with her red lipstick and gold bangles Every day, I looked forward to seeing what sari she would be wearing as she seemed so impossibly glamorous.

"She was always extremely animated and full of enthusiasm for learning and love for her class. She was also very good at giving special jobs to do which made us feel very responsible. Getting to wipe the blackboard was a special privilege and I loved going to the janitor's office to collect keys from Mr Baxter.”

Sangeeta Sinha, one of very few students of Asian lineage at South Morningside in the 1970s, was another former pupil of Mrs Lal’s.

Former Blue Peter presenter Valerie Singleton has heaped praise on Saroj Lal and legacy.

Sangeeta, who would go on to become a teacher in Edinburgh herself, spoke of how refreshing it was to encounter a figure of authority at the school who happened to share her ethnicity.

She said: “It felt good to see an Indian like me in my school because in those days I was probably the only Indian kid in the school and she was the only one of colour among the teachers in South Morningside School.

"On reflection, this was quite an achievement for Lothian council to take on a teacher, that too a BAME woman of Indian origin in the 70s.

“Saroj Lal was very knowledgeable and also respected all cultures – when our class performed nativity she took a pro-active role and leadership in making a great success of it. I was given the role of an angel, which I proudly performed.”

A ceremony was held at South Morningside Primary School on Thursday to mark fifty years since Saroj Lal's historic achievement.

Saroj’s son, Vineet, says he is proud of what his mother achieved throughout her long life and admits he has enjoyed hearing recollections of Mrs Lal from her former pupils.

He said: "She wore a sari to work every day, and, having myself spoken to a huge number of her former pupils. Everybody, to the letter, talks about her saris and how that was who she was.

“I think in many ways it was a clever and astute move on behalf of my mum to assert her identity. The sari was her, she was the sari. The children just treated that as normal – that was what their teacher was like.

“She started teaching at a time when assimilation was the byword, making everybody the same and making ethnic children blend in, while my mum was much more about multiculturalism, about pluralism, about how you could have multiple cultures all living together harmoniously.”

Vineet, 55, who works as a literary translator in Edinburgh, recently approached Valerie Singleton, to inform the legendary BBC presenter of how a Blue Peter trip to Kenya in 1971 had inspired his mother to work in race relations.

Valerie Singleton duly responded, heaping praise on Mrs Lal and noting the invaluable lessons on equality she taught her South Morningside pupils all those years ago.

She said: “It is so rewarding to know that my time on Blue Peter was such an inspiration to Saroj Lal who passed on the values of the programme to her pupils at South Morningside Primary School. Clearly these values were very close to her own.

“She especially found our film Blue Peter Royal Safari, filmed in Kenya, a great inspiration and it led to her later work in race relations. Saroj was a very special and exceptional teacher, and without doubt she has created a future generation of adults who will be hugely concerned for the welfare of less fortunate children in the world.”

Asked what his late mother would think of the global Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the death of George Floyd in America, Vineet said he believes she would have supported its core messages, but doesn’t think she would have been in favour of tearing down statues of 18th century slave traders.

He commented: "I think she would’ve been very sympathetic to the BLM movement. She always pressed for equality and equality of opportunity. She was under no illusion that there was a lot of work to be done at policy level to ensure there was an equal playing field.

"She wouldn’t have been one for tearing down statues and signs of historical fact, because I think for her it was a record of what had gone before and it was important to learn from it.

"You need to preserve the footprints of time in order to learn from them. She was aware of that because her own father had been involved in the struggle for Indian independence that led to partition in 1947. It was about using the past as a way to inform the future.”