Saroj Lal Primary School: Naming new school in Edinburgh's Morningside after anti-racism campaigner would send a powerful message – Vineet Lal

What’s in a name? Rather a lot, is the answer. Names are critically important.

Thursday, 15th July 2021, 4:55 am
Saroj Lal worked as a teacher in Edinburgh and went on to become a leading campaigner against racism, injustice and discrimination

They say something about us, and who we are. Our own names feel special, and unique. They are how others see us, and how we see ourselves. Everything that makes us who we are.

So when it comes to schools, names assume an even greater importance. Edinburgh’s newest primary school, currently under construction in Morningside, is scheduled to accept its first pupils in August 2022.

Long before then, however, the school will need a name. And we will need to choose carefully, for this is a decision that will influence and impact our local community and its young people far into the future.

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We could, of course, choose a name that reflects geography. A name that does nothing more than tell us where the school is located, on Canaan Lane. That’s how schools have always been named. Safe, conventional, job done. Easy.

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Yet there is an amazing opportunity here. We could pro-actively choose to do things differently. We could choose a name that has an inspirational story to tell, which would tell the world about us, about Edinburgh, and Scotland, and what we stand for in the 21st century. A story that’s local, and national, and international too.

My late mother, Saroj Lal, was a truly remarkable woman. A woman ahead of her time. She began teaching at South Morningside Primary in 1970, worked with minority communities at the YWCA, and then moved to Lothian Racial Equality Council, where she remained for 16 years, latterly as director.

Saroj was a trailblazing figure in Edinburgh from the 1970s to 1990s, leading the crusade against racism, injustice and discrimination. She defended the rights of black, Asian and other minority communities, of the elderly and vulnerable, of the disenfranchised and marginalised. She fought for equality for women, refugees and asylum seekers. Her legacy remains all around us.

But Saroj’s groundbreaking achievements, and the current campaign to name the new school after her, assumed added significance this week. The appalling torrent of racial abuse directed at England’s black players illustrates that her pioneering activism and anti-racist work are more important now than they ever were in her lifetime. Tackling racism for decades doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

To make matters worse, Home Secretary Priti Patel’s tin-eared response, apparently professing solidarity after previously criticising ‘taking the knee’ as “gesture politics”, smacks of mind-blowing hypocrisy.

Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings have both displayed immense dignity and strength of spirit in their robust and eloquent responses, which would have struck a chord with Saroj, had she been here, for they reflect struggles and battles with which she was, sadly, all too familiar.

The naming of Edinburgh’s new school offers a unique opportunity for us all – the local community, Edinburgh Council, the Scottish Government – to show that, when it comes to decisive and purposeful action, we really do ‘mean what we say’ when it comes to a demonstrable commitment to equality and inclusion.

A chance to prove we really are serious about change in the wake of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd verdict; in the wake of the Edinburgh Council report on allegations of racism in schools; in the wake of the ongoing debate around the city’s potent heritage of slavery and colonialism, as enshrined in its street names, statues and stone edifices; and how we ought to address the glaring imbalance.

And, most importantly, in the light of a dazzling number of recent reports on equality and diversity from the Scottish and UK governments, and the Runnymede Trust, almost all of which (despite some of their more controversial findings) do consistently agree that meaningful action to combat inequality, tackle the root causes of racism and reflect an inclusive, diverse nation is essential.

Now is the time to put theory into practice. To address the stark fact that hardly any women – let alone BAME women – are commemorated in the public realm of the city. Naming the school after Saroj would not only be a tangible, and highly visible, means of marking her life and enduring legacy to Edinburgh, but more importantly would inspire generations of young people yet to come.

Her story, like those of countless other migrants like her, deserves to be told, for in the act of telling we preserve our collective history – Saroj’s uplifting story is, after all, our story too – and show that anything is possible. Even if you are black, and a migrant, and a woman. She is who she is, but she stands for so many, and for so much more.

Like the England team at Wembley last Sunday, and rare are the times one can say this, we too are poised on the brink of history. The momentum is building. As I walk the streets of South Edinburgh, people come up to express their support for the campaign.

The community wants this to happen. There is blanket cross-party support for the proposal, reflecting the support for motions raised at Edinburgh Council and the Scottish Parliament last year to recognise Saroj’s contribution to our local and national life.

In August, the four existing schools in the area will vote on the name of the new school. ‘Saroj Lal Primary School’ would probably be the first school in Scotland (and perhaps the UK) to be named after a black woman (and a teacher into the bargain).

That decision would send a powerful message to the world about Edinburgh and Scotland, about us, about what we stand for. It would place the City of Edinburgh Council centre stage – as a global leader in taking a stance against racism, and in the ongoing fight for equality, diversity and fairness for all.

Let’s be bold. Let’s make history happen. Let’s be proud to be us.

Vineet Lal is a French-to-English literary translator. For more about Saroj Lal’s life visit www.sarojlal.com

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