Sports mentor inspires pupils to follow his lead

PE teacher's work with pupils from tough backgrounds wins him UK award nomination. Henry Hepburn reports

Canoeing took Bob Foley from a tough Edinburgh estate to the Olympics. Nearly 40 years later, he credits that experience with turning him into an award-nominated PE teacher.

The Newbattle Community High head of PE is shortlisted as Teacher of the Year in the UK-wide Sky Sports Living for Sport Awards.

Yet he might never have taught but for two mentors who, while he was a pupil at Edinburgh's Gracemount High, introduced him to canoeing.

Science teacher Graham Smith, who later became head, and maths teacher Scott Balfour inspired the young Foley and two friends, Jock Young and Jim Dolan, so much that they eventually formed the British youth team for whitewater slalom.

In 1972, he and his teammates were invited to the Munich Olympics as observers, a once-unthinkable experience for someone whose upbringing had been tough at times. A few years later, all three canoeists became teachers themselves.

To this day Mr Foley, 56, keeps an eye out for those children "whose nose is runny and people are saying is a loser".

One big success was Conor Fitzpatrick, a pupil with a difficult home life who was frequently absent until being introduced to basketball. Conor, an apprentice electrician who left school this summer, gained hugely in confidence and went on to coach younger pupils. He became 2010's Sky Sports Living for Sport Student of the Year.

Mr Foley is one of eight PE teachers - a large team in the 920-pupil Midlothian school that is a legacy of participation in Schools of Ambition - whose togetherness and shared aims are symbolised by a common uniform.

"The staff are the success - I just happen to be head of department," he said.

But he does have a guiding philosophy, that "inside every kid is someone who could stand at the Olympics like I did".

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