50 years on: a trailblazing teacher and race relations pioneer
Moray House graduate Saroj Lal (1937-2020) broke ground as one of the first Asian teachers in Edinburgh and one of Scotland’s pioneering race relations activists and equality campaigners.
Saroj Lal was one of Scotland’s pioneering race relations activists, feminists and equality campaigners in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, latterly as Director of Lothian Racial Equality Council.
She was a trailblazer in fighting for fairness for all, and in particular for disadvantaged and marginalised Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women. She was also the first Asian woman in Scotland to be appointed as a Justice of the Peace, in 1986.
Saroj was born in Gujranwala in 1937 (then in British India) to Behari Lal Chanana, a businessman and Congress party politician, and Wazir Devi Khurana. Her early years were marked by the turmoil of partition.
She graduated with an MA in Economics from Panjab University in Chandigarh in 1962 and taught briefly before her marriage to Amrit Lal, an engineer who had studied engineering in Glasgow in the 1950s.
Moray House and teaching
The couple migrated to Edinburgh in the late 1960s. Saroj combined raising a young family with furthering her education. She trained as a teacher at (what was then) Moray House College of Education and gained her Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in 1970.
On 20 August 1970 she took up a teaching post at South Morningside Primary School, becoming the first BAME teacher in the school's history, among the very first in Edinburgh and among the earliest in Scotland.
Her training as a schoolteacher was instrumental in preparing her for her later work in multi-culturalism and anti-racist education, as at the time so many of the teaching materials presented a skewed – and often prejudiced – view of developing countries.
She would go on to challenge perceptions and stereotypes throughout her career, fighting for a more equal – and balanced – representation of minority ethnic communities in teaching materials and children’s books.
During her time as a schoolteacher she took inspiration from the BBC television programme Blue Peter, and its dynamic young presenter, Valerie Singleton (they were almost exactly the same age). At the time Blue Peter was one of very few children’s programmes to engage with diversity and children from other cultural backgrounds.
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. 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.
Saroj began volunteering with the YWCA in 1973, which led to her becoming a community worker with the Roundabout International Centre. She joined Lothian Racial Equality Council in 1980 and became its director a decade later.
In 1992, she proudly watched on as her son, Vineet Lal, graduated from the University with a first class MA (Hons) in French.
Vineet, a literary translator, revealed that one of his mother's greatest achievements was working with Lothian and Borders Police:
"[She] helped to draw up a working definition of racist attacks, introduce regular monitoring of racist incidents, and increase the profile of black and minority ethnic communities within the police force.
"At the time this was a predominantly a male world and an often sexist environment. It didn’t stop her."
50 years on
Saroj died in March 2020 at the age of 82. On 20 August 2020, after Scotland’s schools had reopened post lockdown, pupils and teachers at South Morningside Primary School joined Saroj's family to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her groundbreaking achievement and important contributions.
Professor Rowena Arshad of the Centre for Education for Racial Equality in Scotland (CERES), and former Head of Moray House School of Education and Sport, knew Saroj well and remembers her reslience and creativity while furthering race equality:
Being one of the first – if not the first – visible minority teachers, Saroj would have placed high expectations on herself, and for her this meant making a difference in the classroom and introducing a curriculum that more accurately represented people from around the world.
Saroj was a pioneer in the very early days of race relations in Scotland. She entered teaching during the 'assimilationist' phase, when multicultural and anti-racist education were unknown concepts. She would have had to fly solo, and been incredibly resilient and creative in taking forward race equality.