Q+A with Bob Foley

After a 17-year career at Newbattle High came to an end earlier this year, I spoke to former head of PE Bob Foley about his life, the Ozone, the importance of networking, and his plans to write a book.


How involved were you with PE when you were at school? Was PE teaching always what you wanted to do when you left school?

 I went to Gracemount High School and PE was really important to me. PE was a great way for me to express myself because I was dreadful at maths, fantastic at English, great at languages.

At Gracemount, it was only a three-year school, so we had to move to Liberton for fourth, fifth, and sixth year to do standard grades. An English teacher suggested I should join the canoe club at the school.

I joined with a few other guys and I was pretty good at it and we were teamed up with Boroughmuir High School and we started winning competitions in slalom. Then we got in the Scottish team, then we became the British team, then we started competing all over Europe.

I wanted to be a journalist. I didn’t want to be a PE teacher. It had no glamour for me, I wanted to be on the TV. I was brilliant at English, I wanted to write stories. For a few different reasons I wanted to go to uni in Glasgow, but they didn’t do journalism. I applied for PE college. Then, because I was a British team canoeist, I got into Jordanhill with ease.

So, I did my three years and moved back to Edinburgh where I started teaching at Drummond High School. I did three years there. I really loved it. I loved teaching back in Edinburgh.

But I did miss the bigger world. I had been canoeing all over Europe. The guy who was principal teacher had 25 years until he retired, so I had no hope of promotion.

I left, and for 20 years I worked all over Europe in sales for outdoor companies like Karrimor, Berghaus, Vango because of my strength in languages and I loved it! We lived in Spain, The Netherlands, Portugal.

Then, a crucial time came. Our youngest son was going to start primary and our oldest son was going to start high school. We kind of decided that our trekking the world days were over, and we moved from Alkmaar back to Scotland, back here to Penicuik.

So, I decided I would have a career change back to what I used to do and in the year 2000, I returned to teaching at St. David’s. Two years later, Colin Taylor called me and asked me if I would come for an interview at Newbattle High School, and I got that job, and that was 17 years ago!

Circling back to your canoeing career, what was that like? Where did that take you?

 I’ll never forget the first time – it was me and my pal and it was at the Union Canal. There were a lot of posh kids from Boroughmuir. I loved the freedom. We were so good at it because we had no fear. We came from Gracemount. We were hardcore.

Being at Boroughmuir was a game changer, though. It completely changed our dreams of leaving school and getting a job to wanting to go on to further education.

We then started doing slaloms which were in white water and the posh kids were quite scared of the white water. We weren’t. So, we got picked for the Scottish team and would travel all over. And you got fed! We were quite a poor family, and the whole weekend we’d get fed and looked after. We ate like kings!

Then after being picked for the Scottish team, we got picked for the British team. We competed in all of the big rivers in Europe. We were in Austria, the Olympic course in Germany, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Belgium, everywhere! It was wonderful.

Then I went to college. This was the foundation for me succeeding at PE college as I was used to hard physical routine and discipline.  I trained three times a day. I got up in the morning and I ran. I canoed for an hour. Ran back. Went to school. Then did weights at lunch time. Then at night we went up north to the River Tay and we trained on the rapids.

I got to college and there was a lot going on. New people, new places, the nightlife. I’ve never canoed since. It’s so intense being a top performer. You can either do it, and do it 100%, or don’t do it at all.

Like you said, you spent 17 years at Newbattle and it was full of great moments. Tell me about when you went down to Shropshire in 2012 to receive an award.

 I’ve been really lucky. There were so many great pupils at Newbattle. And I have to say, a fantastic head teacher in Colin. He supported me to get involved in anything that other schools would say “it’s too much trouble.”

The reason we had so many great successes is all of the connections we had at school, and it was because Colin supported me and my staff to take everything offered to Newbattle kids.

So, we had Sky, the British Council with Africa, Youth Sport Trust. Hazel and Bernie from Youth Sport Trust were instrumental in the success of PE at Newbattle. They were responsible for so much – Sister school trips to Africa, our Commonwealth Games day and our baton carriers, as well as trips for our pupils to the UK school games. The two of them were outstanding supporters of our pupils and PE.

I was in London with Mrs Alexander and Steve Frew, who was so brilliant for the school, for Teacher of the Year with Sky and that was at Wembley Stadium. And then Conor (Fitzpatrick) got pupil of the year.

There were just so many awards that came to the school because we had a fantastic PE staff, but also an incredibly supportive head teacher. If you know your head teacher has got your back, anything is possible. It was just a magical time. I’ve been so, so lucky.

I learned that, whatever you do, if someone makes an opportunity open to you, grab it. Your pupils will absolutely benefit from it.

There’s one thing teachers are not good at, and that’s what 20 years of business taught me – networking. If you can network, you can make connections for your school, your pupils, your community, and your staff.

I was at a champagne reception overlooking the Thames, very fancy I know, with Olympic athletes and Seb Coe, to thank who everyone who worked with Get Set to promote London 2012. A young lady approached me asked if I was Bob Foley and said she had heard so much about our PE department.

She then asked if I would like to receive around 20 cartons of unused London 2012 kit. I, of course, said yes, as I do to everything. She disappeared.

I arrive back at school and reception called to say an articulated truck was in the playground for me. I went to the truck to get the 20 cartons. Turns out, it was 20 huge pallets! It took us hours to unload. Needless to say, every house in our whole community has an item of London 2012 gear. All because I always say yes!

How much did you, as a department, enjoy having the sixth years up in the Ozone, being the hub of the senior school in a way?

 I met Mr Taylor for coffee recently, and the last thing he asked me was how much did I miss not having the Ozone in the new school. I didn’t like the new school because, effectively, we no longer had that contact.

That was the most special thing about the old Newbattle. The younger years used to look at you all sat there and go “I’m staying on till S6. I want to be a part of that.” When we moved to the new school, I won’t lie, it’s nothing like the old school, for us as PE.

I’ll never forget in your year (Leavers 2018), you were asked not to come in on your last day. But you guys, every single one of you, came in. It was brilliant.

I just loved the thought in the Curriculum for Excellence, there’s responsible citizens, and you guys organised it and came in to say goodbye. It was probably one of the highlights of my career. It wasn’t disobedience. It was closure. And we loved it.

The Ozone was incredibly important. Everyone who came to visit said “This is incredible. This should be in every school.” And now it isn’t, and I think that’s sad.

Another highlight must have been the Commonwealth Games in 2014, when the school was lucky enough have people running with the baton, including yourself. What was that day like?

That day with the baton was amazing. Mr Taylor had organised brilliant weather. We had dancers, rugby, loads of parents, the whole community was involved. I got to walk the baton along Easthouses as far as the old social club.

But it was more special for the pupils who got to do it because we recommended them. Five people from one school carrying the Commonwealth Games baton! I’d say that’s probably my highlight at Newbattle.

The greatest joy I had out of teaching PE at Newbattle was the success of all my pupils and the relationships built with them.

We’ve spoken about all these amazing highlights at Newbattle, so how hard was it to say goodbye to everyone on your last day?

 I’m not an emotional kind of person, to be honest. It was hard – no doubt about it. I still meet some of the staff and I still bump into some of the kids out and about.

I think it would have been harder if it was still at the old school. I didn’t have that connection with the new school.

My wife came in on the last day, and I wouldn’t have achieved anything without Linda’s support over 37 years of marriage. The last thing I did when I left the new school, I said to my wife “I want to drive down to the old school and get a photo there.”

I know it’s just a field. But, for me, that’s where the soul of Newbattle was.

Would you say your last day at the old school was harder than actually leaving Newbattle for the last time?

Yes. That was a horrendous day. We all came in at 7.30am. Every one of us were heartbroken. It was absolutely dreadful. Far worse than leaving Newbattle.

I closed the door for the last time, and everyone was in their cars, full of equipment. We drove up to the new school and it didn’t feel real.

We went down a week after they started knocking stuff down. We saw a huge hole in our department. That was heartbreaking to see.

It was dreadful. It was like leaving a house you’d lived in for a long time. That was the worst day ever.

Tell me about your plans to write a book.

As I told you earlier, I always wanted to be a journalist. I’ve always done diaries and recorded what I do. I’m sure it was Mr. Wilson who said to me “you’ve got so many good stories; you should write a book.” It became a running joke. It will probably sell about five copies!

I could fill a book just on teaching. But that would only interest people involved in education. I had such an interesting time outside of teaching as well, so it’ll be more autobiographical, definitely.

Before all of this (coronavirus outbreak), I planned to go and see everyone. I was going to make an adventure of meeting everyone I worked with, making it a trip.

I’ve met so many interesting, crazy, amazing people. I don’t think it’s vanity. I just want to tell some stories.

Our conversation ends with Mr Foley, as he often did, taking a genuine interest in how I am and what I’m doing. He offers advice and his fullest support, just as he always has since I first met him in 2012.

It is clear that Mr Foley will miss Newbattle, but perhaps more significantly, Newbattle will miss Mr Foley.

Find Bob Foley on Twitter @BobFoleyPE

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