One small step for Mum...One giant leap for equality

Half a century ago, shortly after man landed on the Moon, Saroj Lal found herself in uncharted territory – as one of the first BAME teachers in Scotland. A true pioneer, she left behind a legacy of inclusion and multiculturalism in our education system, writes her son Vineet Lal
14th August 2020, 12:01am
One Small Step For Mum...one Giant Leap For Equality

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One small step for Mum...One giant leap for equality

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/one-small-step-mumone-giant-leap-equality

In the small hours of the morning on 21 July 1969, our family crowded excitedly around a flickering secondnd TV. On the tiny screen, in grainy black and white, we watched, awestruck, as Neil Armstrong stepped gingerly onto the surface of the Moon. This was history in the making. I was barely 4, but the iconic image of Armstrong, with Earth reflected in his visor, remains forever seared on my mind. “Do you know who that is?” asked my mother, Saroj. “A spaceman!” I shouted in glee. My mother, ever the educator, frowned: “The proper word is ‘astronaut’. You’d better learn that. They might ask you at school.”

History, however, can be made in many ways - some evidently less dramatic, and of lesser global significance, yet important nonetheless. A little over a year later, on 20 August 1970, Saroj Lal carefully adjusted her neatly pressed sari, puckered her lips approvingly in the mirror to check her lipstick, and gently tweaked the pallu of her sari. She was about to start her first day as a teacher at Edinburgh’s South Morningside Primary, thereby becoming the first BAME (black, Asian and/or minority ethnic) teacher at the school and certainly among the very first (if not the first) in the capital.

It was a small step for her, perhaps - but one that would leave an enduring legacy, both in terms of its impact on her pupils and on the overarching story of BAME educators in Scotland. Saroj sadly passed away in March, before the 50th anniversary of her achievement and before the current debate around #BlackLivesMatter. It seems strange to think, given recent events, that she began teaching only a couple of years after the assassination of Martin Luther King and the ensuing race riots across the US.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were an incredibly difficult time for first-generation immigrants from South Asia like my parents. They were not always assured of a warm welcome from the host community, even in Scotland, with its reputation for tolerance, and making ends meet presented a constant struggle. Armed with an MA in economics from Panjab University, and anxious to further her career, Saroj enrolled on the PGCE course at Edinburgh’s Moray House College of Education.

She and my father, Amrit, a college lecturer in engineering, suddenly found themselves juggling the considerable pressures of full-time study, work and somehow bringing up two small children, all while living in one cramped room of a flat in Leith. It was a world away from Singapore - Saroj’s first experience of life in a truly multi-racial society - where I was born, and where we had a spacious apartment with the added luxury of an ayah to look after me.

Her arrival at South Morningside, in one of Edinburgh’s most affluent and genteel districts with its middle-class demographic, would undoubtedly have raised the odd eyebrow (or two) at the time. Kathryn Wright, one of her former pupils, recalls how striking she looked: “I thought Mrs Lal was extremely stylish and beautiful, with her red lipstick and gold bangles. Every day I’d look forward to seeing what sari she’d be wearing - she seemed so impossibly glamorous!”

A daunting experience

It’s hard to imagine just how daunting it must have felt to be the very first BAME teacher in a school, in those early days of the 1970s: not only were her peers on the teaching staff exclusively white, but the two classes she taught from 1970 to 1973 were also entirely white, with the exception of one South Asian pupil. As the solitary brown face, Saroj would certainly have stood out, and undoubtedly have been subjected to some degree - however mild, or covert - of prejudice. But she refused to make an issue of things, just like many pupils who were the victims of playground racism (myself included), preferring instead to get on, quietly and efficiently, with delivering a sound education.

For Saroj, the key objective was to be, first and foremost, an effective teacher: she just happened to be of South Asian origin. Exploring issues linked to race, equality and diversity, and the integration of multiculturalism into the classroom, was incidental. Nevertheless, in common with most BAME educators, she quickly discovered that being a teacher from a minority background and the assumption (both from the outside world and self-imposed) that you will address BAME issues come as a package.

Professor Rowena Arshad, a leading academic and authority on race and education in Scotland, knew Saroj well: “She 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.”

Research shows, unsurprisingly, that for BAME pupils, the presence of a teacher who “looks like them” can inspire confidence and drive academic attainment; and while multiculturalism and anti-racist education ought to be the shared responsibility of all educators, a BAME teacher will obviously come from a position of lived experience - from the sharp end, so to speak.

The fact of being an early migrant to Scotland also enabled her to have a unique rapport with children who - while not from a minority background - somehow felt excluded, or needed additional empathy and support. Another former pupil, Nicholas Jenkins, an American now working as a lawyer, remembers this vividly: “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 were a hugely reassuring presence for me at that time.”

Yet tackling multiculturalism in the classroom in 1970 posed considerable challenges, not least in terms of basic teaching materials. “Saroj entered teaching during the ‘assimilationist’ phase, when multicultural and anti-racist education were unknown concepts,” says Arshad. “She would have had to fly solo, and been incredibly resilient and creative in taking forward race equality.” Most textbooks and visual aids were depressingly monocultural, with scarcely a nod to people of colour - and where there was, the portrayal was often stereotypical, if not borderline racist (and sexist to boot). She was often exasperated by the content in those British reading scheme classics Janet and John and Peter and Jane. In geography, she was bemused by a much-used series of wallcharts called Children of Other Lands. The contrast between the posters depicting India and Nigeria (impoverished children, mud huts, barefoot) and those for Canada and New Zealand (shiny white faces, smartly dressed, shoes) offers a stark reminder of how far resources and awareness, thankfully, have progressed since then.

Saroj realised that engaging with her pupils on matters of diversity, and expanding their horizons, meant understanding what resonated in their lives at home. She turned, astutely, to children’s television and its flagship show, Blue Peter - one of the few children’s programmes, at the time, to proactively embrace other cultures and acknowledge the developing world, both through its summer expeditions and its annual appeal. In the absence of strong female role models, she took her lead from its dynamic young presenter, Valerie Singleton (they were almost exactly the same age).

Valerie recently paid tribute to her legacy: “It is so rewarding to know that my time on Blue Peter was such an inspiration to Saroj, 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, shot in Kenya, a great inspiration and it led to her later work in race relations.”

Broader perspectives

History presented similar obstacles, with RJ Unstead’s fusty and antiquated Looking at History series being standard issue in many city schools (as it had been since the 1950s). Saroj, however, was pragmatic and simply used her materials as a springboard for project work that embraced a far broader perspective while bringing the core subject to life. She understood the value of the visual and the tangible: she made the most of the British Museum’s Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition in 1972, somehow persuading a parent to lend the class a reproduction of the pharaoh’s gold death mask (and the famous bust of Nefertiti), and commandeering my father to bring back colour slides of the show from a trip to London.

Saroj was puzzled in recent years by the constant emphasis in the primary curriculum on the Egyptians (a “black” civilisation which, she argued, was never explicitly framed in its true African context), the Romans and the Victorians, to the detriment of Chinese, South Asian and African histories. While the supporting materials available to educators had improved immeasurably since her days at South Morningside (a testament to the earlier work of Arshad and many others at Edinburgh’s Multicultural Education Centre), the overall focus, in her eyes, was still frustratingly narrow. For her this was one of the areas where considerable progress remained to be made, both in the decolonisation of the narrative per se and in the meaningful integration of black (and world) narratives across the syllabus.

Saroj left South Morningside in 1973, and from the mid-1970s until 1980 continued to be a key player in multiculturalism through various roles with the YWCA, working in schools along with the education department and the Commonwealth Institute. She went on to become a leading figure in Scottish race relations as director at Lothian Racial Equality Council, where she conflated her experience in education with the ongoing battle for equality. Taking a more strategic approach to diversity and inclusion across the entire sector, she addressed racist bullying in schools head-on, set up Edinburgh’s first dedicated ethnic library at McDonald Road, expanded mother tongue teaching and promoted BAME arts, notably at Drummond Community High School.

In the 50 years since Saroj started out, there has undeniably been progress in matters of race and education, but as #BlackLivesMatter and the recent Runnymede Trust report Taking Stock: Race Equality in Scotland have highlighted, the playing field is far from level. For her, the recruitment of more BAME educators, and issues related to equality of opportunity and barriers to promotion, still needed to be addressed - and, indeed, the low percentage of BAME teachers in Scotland was described as “unacceptable” by first minister Nicola Sturgeon earlier this year.

Forging a new path is never easy - but the fact that Saroj did so despite the many challenges of being a BAME woman in a male-dominated world, a first-generation immigrant and a young mother makes her achievement all the more remarkable.

Wright, now headteacher at Edinburgh’s Dean Park Primary, has a very personal take on the contribution she made: “I 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 she was a factor in my life choices.” Saroj would, indeed, have been very proud.

Vineet Lal is a literary translator

This article originally appeared in the 14 August 2020 issue

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