Saroj Lal who died in March aged 82, was the first Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) teacher appointed in Edinburgh in 1970.

She was born and educated in India, but quickly adapted to life in Britain – along with its popular culture and, importantly, children’s television.

This August marked the 50th anniversary of her appointment as a primary school teacher.

On 20 August 2020 her family celebrated with pupils and teachers of the South Morningside Primary School, as it was the 50th anniversary to the day of her beginning her career as a teacher there. It had been hoped that the celebration could be held in Braidburn Valley Park but on consideration, it was decided that the playground was a better venue.

The pupils had prepared a presentation for the mini assembly attended by Saroj’s husband, Amrit, son, Vineet, daughter, Kavita, and niece, Isha Saini. Her former colleagues Margaret Stephen and Isobel Mieras were also in attendance.

Her son Vineet Lal told The Edinburgh Reporter: “P7 had prepared a wonderful presentation on Saroj’s life, the key points of her career, her role in both education and race relations and the challenges she faced. They asked some brilliant questions on topics including Nelson Mandela, Saroj’s conflict with politicians and BlackLivesMatter. They presented our family with a special garland with the motto:

There is only one race

The great human race!

He continued: “Saroj was a real trailblazer and broke new ground, only a couple of years after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, and the associated race riots across the USA.

“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, and fight for a more equal – and balanced – representation of minority ethnic communities in teaching materials and children’s books. For example, at Lothian Racial Equality Council she become involved in the debate around Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo, which was widely available in school libraries and children’s bookshops during the 1970s and 80s.

“As a children’s educator, she was heavily influenced by Blue Peter and cleverly used many of the innovative show’s themes and ideas – historical stories (by Dorothy Smith), arts and crafts (by Margaret Parnell), exploration of other lands (the Summer Expeditions), global diversity – in her teaching and multi-cultural classroom activities. Blue Peter was one of the first BBC TV children’s programmes to pro-actively portray the lives of children in other cultures, including developing countries (often linked to the annual appeal).

“She was particularly inspired by the dynamic young presenter, Valerie Singleton (who was practically the same age as Saroj, both born April 1937), and took her lead from her. Valerie’s 1971 Blue Peter Royal Safari to Kenya with Princess Anne (to mark the Princess’ new role with Save the Children) was one of the key influences in Mum going on to a career in race relations and fighting the cause of the disadvantaged and the marginalised. My mum and Valerie also corresponded in the 1970s, when Saroj wrote to her to say how much she admired the programme and Valerie’s work.”

All photos of the event courtesy of Jon Davey Photography

Valerie Singleton previously of Blue Peter fame 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.”

Professor Rowena Arshad said: “Being one of the first, if not the first visible minority teacher, Saroj would have placed high expectations of herself and for her, this would have also included making a difference in the classroom and to introduce a curriculum that more accurately represented people from around the world – beyond the stereotypes.”

“Saroj was a pioneer in the very early days of race relations in Scotland. She would have come into teaching during what I would term the ‘assimilationist’ phase where 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.”

Lothians MSP Sarah Boyack said, “I first met Saroj through her work with NKS and Milan. She was one of the earliest BAME teachers in Scotland. She broke down barriers in our education system, and will remain one of Scotland’s pioneering race relations activists, feminists and equality campaigners.

“In 1986 she became the first Asian woman Scotland to be appointed Justice of the Peace, also serving the Lothian Racial Equality Council for 16 years where her contributions made vital inroads in fighting discrimination against ethnic minorities.

“A determined woman, Saroj was part of a movement of active racial equality campaigners across Scotland who continue to do vital work in helping eradicate racism and inequality. She will be missed and her significant impact in race relations in Scotland will be felt for a long time to come.”

Kathryn Wright (nee Dodd) is an Edinburgh headteacher and a former pupil of Saroj Lal. She said: “I was in her class at South Morningside when I was in P3 and have such positive memories of my time there.  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.  

“I am now head teacher at Dean Park Primary in Balerno and absolutely love my role.  it’s a privilege to be able to work within a community and to have the opportunity to make a difference.  Your mum did that in such a powerful way and I would have loved her to know that she was a factor in my life choices.”

Nick Jenkins was a pupil at the school and Mrs Lal was his teacher from 1971 to 1973. He wrote to Vineet Lal, Mrs Lal’s son: “I had just arrived in Edinburgh from Chicago and was looking at a new and strange world. I was horribly shy and self-conscious. Kids would ask me to “say pots,”  just to hear me say “pahts.” I remember one kid complaining to your mum I called him “Gray-ham” instead of the Scots phonetic pronunciation,  “Grayem.”  Your mum diffused such impasses gracefully.  There is a loneliness associated with arrival in a new country that exists even though you have family and know you are loved.  Your mum’s kindness and poise was a hugely assuring presence for me at that time. When I evaluate the process from then to now I credit your mother and my secondary school English teacher Jack Bevan as among the handful of people giving me the confidence I needed when I returned to the States alone and 19 years-old in Spring 1984.”

Sangeeta Sinha was Saroj’s only BAME pupil in 1971-72. She wrote: “As I looked up while hanging my coat in the cloakroom, she approached me with a big smile looking down at me.

“I was taken aback because this was a woman who looked just like my mum wearing a sari saying ‘Hello’ to me!

“She said she knew my parents and called me by my name. It would probably have been in 1970-71 when I was in P2.

“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.

“I became a P3 pupil after the summer of 1971, Mrs Lal became my teacher. Until that time, she was just Saroj auntie to me!

“Although she was a strict teacher, what I loved about her was her deep laughter and her warm smile.

“For a seven year-old it felt very comfortable to have an Indian teacher in my class! The only Indian teacher I had ever known was my aunt, Smriti Sinha, who taught from the early 60s in Glasgow who also wore a sari to her school!

“On reflection as an adult in Scotland living in the 21st Century, this was quite an achievement for Lothian council to take on a teacher, that too a BAME, a woman of Indian origin in the 70’s!

“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!

“It was quite sad to see her go so soon as we all enjoyed having her as our teacher. But out friendship and relationship grew throughout my childhood and adult life.

“Coincidentally I too became a teacher, maybe Mrs Lal and my aunt Smriti Sinha were subconsciously my inspirations for becoming an educator in the Primary sector!

“After completing my PGCE at Moray House , I taught in Edinburgh at the start of my career. I too was one of a few BAME teachers in Lothian that could be counted on the one hand in 1987.

I only knew of one other BAME teacher, she taught at Craigmillar Primary school, while I started my career at Greendykes Primary.

“Although Saroj Lal (or Saroj auntie as I knew her growing up) has now passed away and I never got the chance to say my goodbyes properly, her son’s quest to find the children she taught for the 50th anniversary of South Morningside has led us to think what an inspiration she would have been in those early years. She maintained her Indian identity by wearing her saris whilst also respecting other cultures. She was an inspiration as a teacher and even in her death she is connecting us with our old friends from South Morningside through her son’s efforts!”

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Founding Editor of The Edinburgh Reporter.
Edinburgh-born multimedia journalist and iPhoneographer.