Age of heroes

19th October 2012 at 01:00
While Mo Farah twice proved himself to be a champion in the Olympic Stadium, his former teacher has been defending school sports. Ed Dorrell reports on Alan Watkinson's recent webchat for the TES

There is a Twitter hashtag, #heroteachers, used every now and again in reference to teachers who have really made a difference to their pupils. Sometimes it can be a little gushing, a little over the top. Rarely, if ever, has it been more aptly used than on 4 August 2012, and then again a week later. The subject of these tweets was a previously unheard of PE teacher and school sports coordinator from a suburb of West London.

Alan Watkinson found himself suddenly dragged out of relative obscurity because of the simple fact that 18 years ago he discovered Mo Farah, the Somali-born athlete who had just run his way into the nation's heart.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that without Watkinson the Mobot would not have become the pose of choice in millions of photos, there would not be any talk of plain old Mo Farah becoming Sir Mo and those two golds would not have been won. There is no doubt that the great man himself recognises the part Watkinson has played; rather extraordinarily, he picked him as his best man. He still insists on calling him "Sir".

Watkinson went way beyond what would have been expected from just about the very moment that he realised his football-obsessed 11-year-old pupil could run fast. Unusually fast.

He became something close to a parent, ambitious to get the very best from their child. He drove Farah to athletics meets, made sure he was on time, checked on his kit, hooked him up with the best local running coaches and cheered him on from the sidelines.

Indeed, Farah's agent Ricky Simms has previously suggested that Watkinson's impact was even greater: "Mo might have gone off the rails if it hadn't been for Alan's input. Athletics became Mo's family after he arrived here."

In short, Watkinson was everything that a sporting protege needs in childhood, and more. "You have to find opportunities and experiences for the (talented pupils) that are maybe beyond your capability," Watkinson explains. "For instance, with Mo, from a very early age I realised that my knowledge of long-distance running was such that I needed to get him to an athletics club.

"It was important to get him to venues on time, to ensure he knew what was going on and what the level of competition was, how important it was to train and prepare. It was important, in his case, to help him develop language skills and to work with as many agencies as it took to ensure he was able to do what he was good at."

As if this wasn't enough, with Farah's background - an immigrant to this country in a very poor community - came educational issues. Watkinson openly discusses working with Feltham Community College's special educational needs coordinator because Farah "struggled with language and he struggled to access the curriculum".

And Farah did not immediately fit in with his fellow pupils when he arrived in England. "Mo was a little bit like a fish out of water, certainly in Year 7. He had struggled with transition from the age of 8, when he arrived at a Western primary school," Watkinson says. "Then he came to this huge West London secondary school where there were some pupils who made fun of the fact that his language wasn't up to scratch. They would teach him phrases he would say to teachers.

"On more than one or two occasions he was set up, and on one or two occasions he was a little bit naughty, but he was always a character."

Project Mo was clearly no small undertaking. So how did it feel to see all this work pay off on that crazy night in August?

"As I stood there in the stadium, I remembered being the only spectator cheering on Mo as he ran a cross-country race in the rain when he was 13," the 48-year-old Yorkshireman says in something of a dream. "I suddenly realised that 75,000 other people had joined me."

This, surely, is every PE teacher's dream: to discover a sporting superstar. But when you meet Watkinson - as we at TES did when he visited a couple of weeks ago to be grilled by teachers during an hour-long video webchat - you realise that the past few months have been nothing short of personally extraordinary. And, on occasion, a little bizarre.

He was, for example, doorstepped by both The Sun and the Daily Mirror. ("I don't know why - I was more than happy to talk. It must be their default position.") A Sky cameraman forced his way through his front door the evening after Farah's second gold. He tells this story with a time-worn shrug. Watkinson, it would seem, has quickly had to become something of a media veteran; he has lost count of the interviews he has given. He has even become something of a spokesman for school sports and a figurehead for PE teachers.

All the while, however, Watkinson has continued in his day job as manager of Isleworth and Feltham School Sport Partnerships in Hounslow, a relatively deprived borough in outer London. It was the funding for School Sport Partnerships (SSPs) of this kind that Michael Gove cancelled on becoming education secretary in the early summer of 2010. It remains one of the biggest controversies he has faced in his years in office.

In many ways, therefore, Watkinson is something of a politician's nightmare: an Everyman with expertise, with no political agenda and an audience ready and willing to listen to what he has to say. Watkinson does not hold back - he is angry about how the coalition government has treated school sports, and he does not try to hide it.

"It is obscene," he says, responding to a question on Twitter from a UK teacher. "They didn't realise the damage they were doing. It has now become clear that Gove really doesn't care about sport."

One can imagine blushes throughout the Department for Education. Best not to get on the wrong side of someone like Watkinson: it is politically a lose-lose situation.

He does, however, highlight other political failings. The Youth Sport Trust, the body that oversaw SSPs, recognises, he says, that it had allowed itself to become too close to Labour. That, he thinks, was one of the reasons Gove was so keen to pull the funding plug.

But as willing as Watkinson is to discuss the national picture, this, surely, is a story about a special athlete and his relationship with a wonderful teacher.

Watkinson does not try to hide his pride in Farah, which verges on the parental. The man that Farah has become is the source of very real satisfaction.

"Mo has never, ever, unless prompted, spoken about himself and what he has achieved," he says. "For someone who has had the success he has had throughout his athletic career this is something that I find commendable.

"He is an inspiration and he has always been a self-effacing, modest, charming, funny person. I have seen him since the Olympics and he is exactly the same.

"I have always said that I am so proud of the person that he is as well as the athletics success that he has had. To have an Olympic champion with those sorts of personal traits is to have such a great role model for everybody."

While Farah is certainly an exceptional role model for the wider community, Watkinson is also an extraordinary educational figure who is rightly considered a hero for teachers everywhere, and someone who is unafraid to speak out.

And that should be the cause of some celebration in itself.

Photo credit: Getty

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