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Interview with Sir Mo Farah - The Value of Education in My Journey to Olympic Gold

Schools & Academies Show London 2023 
🏅 Interview with Mo Farah – The Starting Blocks: The Value of Education in My Journey to Olympic Gold

Sir Mo Farah joined Jon Severs, TES on the Main Stage at the Schools & Academies Show London 2023 to discuss the value of education in his journey to Olympic gold and the importance of teaching staff to student development. 

The discussion was focused on the following points:

  • Why teaching staff are essential champions for pupils and the value of effective relationships between staff and pupils
  • The value of extracurricular activities like PE to student development
  • The power of schooling to be able to transform lives
  • Why believing in one student and helping them to achieve lays the foundation for future generations

You can tune into the interview with Sir Mo Farah below for free!


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Jon Severs
: Welcome back everybody to the Main Stage, we're hugely privileged to have Sir Mo Farah with us this afternoon.

Sir Mo Farah
: Thank you.

Jon Severs:
With Sir Mo, we're going to work through some of the experiences that he had at school, some of the things he's seeing, and some of the things he wants to achieve in the next stage of his career. So we're just going to kick straight off Mo. So you've been very public, and we start at the start, you've been very public about arriving here as a victim of child trafficking. Can you explain a little bit about that time of coming to this country and, and how education played a role in those early stages.

Sir Mo Farah:
Okay. Hello, everyone. Yeah, so again, back to the question. When I was young, age of nine, I came to the UK, child trafficking. And at the time, I just remember arriving in the UK. As a child, at that point, I was just looking forward to go to the country, I never knew what the outcome would be, very excited. And then later on, went to school. And I struggle, I struggle with school a lot. And again, if it wasn't for my teacher, who noticed the school, I wouldn't be here today. And again, this, you know, seeing that?

Jon Severs:
And do you think that there was any particular challenge in school? Was it a language barrier? Was it the experiences? Was it a mixture of all of those things?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah there were a lot of challenges. And at that age, you know, not speaking a word of English, the culture and the language was a big part. I was, came to a new environment and just put in the school, in the class with among 15 kids. Yeah, it was very difficult, very, very difficult. At times. I didn't, I didn't behave well. I wasn't, I was a good kid. The school could see it, but they knew there was something going on inside me or there was some something going on. And that's when the school kind of took a really serious gone okay, where's the parent, and follow up on it? Again, you know, some kids in schools right now, at that point, if they if they behaved the way I did, maybe we'll see the exit. And again, yeah, I had the right people in my life. And I thank my PE teacher, particularly who was my head a year at the time, who really did notice, me, I was how, how neglected I was and how my behaviour didn't, wasn't good.

Jon Severs:
How self-aware were you about that your challenges you were having when whatever children were having, and also that the behaviours you say you're exhibiting were result of those challenges?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, I wasn't aware of myself, you know, it's been able to understand the system and understand how you should behave, what you should say, and all these things, you know, you learn in school, preschool, and then you go to secondary school, when you go to secondary school, the kids are already way ahead of me, in terms of being able to, you know, go understand our RE, geography all this and for me, I didn't quite understand anything other than, you know, I was just trying to learn English and going, okay, doing what I needed to do and, and at that point, I couldn't communicate with anyone. I did make some friends. But again, I made friends because I was playing with them. I didn't make friends because I was, you know, going into their house or having social life where, you know, you hang around with them.

Jon Severs
: It's interesting, you talk about being behind? Is that a self perpetuating circle in the sense that you're behind, so you don't want to try as much or you're behind, so you know, you feel a sense of embarrassment, so then it's easier to behave in other ways. What sort of what did that drive in you?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, there's two ways the main one, I think I was, you know, shy, and at times was really behind. And I remember when I went from year six to year seven, first day induction, you go in there, and you go and check out the school and you go through and they took us to the library. And because I wanted to be the smartest and thinking people like yeah, he's clever. I picked up the biggest book! I didn't even know where the first page was or the title. But again, you when you're that age, you want to be able to impress other kids or you want to go okay, you know, again, it's just seeing how the kids are and then again, when you're when you have go through exam stuff, you see whether the standard they are and that you put him that standard and challenging them.

Jon Severs
: So a lot of people in the audience will have kids who are exhibiting behaviours like you did at that time, what was the key moment for you, where, how did the teacher I guess, broach the fact that the elements you were not that self aware about were different and were something that needed support? Do you remember a moment? Do you remember how that was approached to you?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, it was very difficult for me to talk to all the teachers or engage with the teachers. And again, you know, for all of you teachers out there, you know, this kids connect with a certain teacher and I connect with my PE teacher, because even though he's my head a year, he was my PE teacher, he was that guy who let me be a kid and let me play outside, and you can see, and you build a little bond. And once you build that bond, then you go, okay, I can talk to him and more I talked to him and more, he understood me. At that point, that was the only person that I could really talk to. And if it wasn't for him, that that teacher, then it would have been hard to get anything out of me. Because, you know, all I wanted to do was let it out was by being you know, not behaving not listening and just be, very distracted, and just be like, that kid.

Jon Severs:
Is there anything particularly about your PE teacher, that made him easier to connect with? Was it because of a shared interest? Or is there a characteristic about a certain type of teacher that makes it easier? Was there something about his character? I mean, that made it easier for you to talk to him?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, it was his character, it was the way you know, he dealt with me in a way of, you know, being able to let me play sports and let me be able to be, you know, have fun, as well as come and talk to me and say, break it down for me, and say listen, this is not how you should behave, this is what you need to do this, and then you understand more. And again, for all of us, if we don't know how to behave, or how to do certain things, we would never accept it, we just think in our own way and carry on. And again, it's understanding that and more for me, he understood where I was coming from, what I was like, what's going on at home, he understood bits of it, and he could see, there's really things that are bothering me.

Jon Severs:
How long do you think that process took? So for you to respect him so that you listen to him? And for him to respect you enough to have that sort of quite robust conversation? Is that weeks, months?

Sir Mo Farah:
It took months, it did take months, because again, you trust in someone with your life, your life, pretty much and you know, the kids are, there eight hours in school, and that eight hours, they're not going to give you the full trust straightaway ,it’s being able to, you know, slowly understand them, seeing what they're like and understand the structure around them. And again, for me, he kind of worked it out. But also I think what has helped me is I was a really, really tentative kid at sports. So whenever you gave me a ball, or running or something being outside, being very active, that's when he saw someone different to this kid in the classroom and getting detention and you know, being really hard.

Jon Severs:
I was gonna ask you about like, sanctions and detentions, suspensions, exclusions, obviously, it's a slightly tricky topic in education, but from your experience at school, and also I'm sure people contact you and share their experiences. Do you need a bit of stick and a bit of carrot? Do you need more characteristic? How do you see like, how would you tackle your own behavior, I guess at that stage?

Sir Mo Farah:
I think it's difficult for us, for all of us, I think at the minute because again, kids in a certain schools that have certain things but again, it's been able to understand the system and seeing the kids and actually going, okay, these are the kids, why are they like this, why are they behaving way, what's going on in their life. And I think for all of us, because of how life is, it's so difficult for now, teachers being able to engage more because there's so much going on, they’ve got their own life. And again, I’m a parent of four kids. And you know, it's so hard because you try and juggle your kids as well as your job. And again, I think my teacher, Alan, at the time, he gave more what teachers gives, he gave a lot more in terms of you know, he wasn't just a teacher, he was sort of someone who really cared and wanted me to see to take him into running club to he wanted the best of me more and more and again, it's and I think that's what it took me again, again just go back to my story where know when he spotted me took me to local running club and then from there, slowly kind of just seeing because my parents never did that and I couldn't.

Jon Severs:
Do you think that finding running as your sport and understanding the discipline of running, did that reflect back into school, was sport the vehicle to a wider transformation or was it restricted just to sport was where you felt at home.

Sir Mo Farah:
No, sports is where I felt comfortable, where I felt myself and I can let things out and again, sports made me understand better. Because again, I was being able to, you know, go to a running club, run for England and when I’m running for England, I go to another country, and then again, it's understanding the culture of that country, understand they speak another language and observing, and it just gives you more of a wider understanding. And at that point, I kind of understood better.

Jon Severs:
And how does it affect your confidence? You mentioned you are shy? And yeah, had some behavior issues did it? Did finding a purpose in sport or even just, you've mentioned before just having an outlet, right, just to let off some frustration? Was that combination quite transformative, then?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, it was. Because it was, it's very difficult, and like I said, like, we all need to let something out, all of us, even myself, you know, you see me as a four times Olympic champion, achieving all this stuff. But again, I'm just a person, just a human being, just like you and at times do struggle, and again, is seeing that, and if I'm going yeah, I'm struggling, I need somebody to talk to I, let's talk about it, let me just get some fresh air and go for it. And again, because of what happened to me when I was younger, sports helped me to escape that. And I was using sports a way to get out. And that's the only time that I was free and could be me. And again, it's so hard for kids. And again, it's finding the kids, if I was a teacher, someone who can give it back to the kids, it’s finding, identify and seeing what they like and don’t like, and getting engaged with then trying to understand why they why they behave like that, is it language? Is that the culture? Is it their parent? Is something going on in their in a life that we don't know. And again, when you understand that, then going forward you can go, okay, what can we do and make small changes.

Jon Severs:
And, in terms of the sporting activity, one of the problems in UK education at the moment is break times and activity times are being squeezed not just in the school day, but outside the school day with computer games, social media, we're becoming slightly less active. And at the same time, attendance and behavior challenges have increased. Do you see a connection there? Do you think that there's a there's a connection?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, there's definitely a big connection there, kid needs to be kids. Even my kids right now, I'm trying to take the iPad away and just go family time, time to go and do sports. And I try and give my kids you know, every tool that I can give them, not just in terms of education. Saying kids, I want you to go be smart, I want you to go to Oxford. No, I just try and let them be kids because of my own experience. And again, if we've taken away the sports and that time, they just be kids and play, we're not really doing anything. And you know, kids need to play, kids need to be active, for their wellbeing. Again, we will face a lot of challenges if we're not letting kids be active and let them take part in a variety of different sports. It doesn't have to be just running, it could be anything else. And try and like you know, get engaged with the school with the clubs and find a system that we can support and we all can all connect.

Jon Severs:
When you're looking for, you've mentioned got four kids, when you were looking for their schools, were you looking for the sporty school you can find like, what were you looking for in? What do you want out of your school for your kids?

Sir Mo Farah:
All my kids are different. I've got one that’s 18, she's gonna be 18 in July, and I've got two twin girls who are going to be 11 in August, born just one after 2012, and my youngest is seven. And all my kids are different. Each one of them, my oldest is into music and she loves playing the piano or picking up the guitar. But that's what makes her happy. And again, I just want them kids to be you know, well respected, have as much tools as they can and very adapting in terms of where you can go anywhere in the world and connect with people and again, it's not about what's in their CV, are they that person, how can they connect with the world. An ideal situation for me and my kids is just for them to just be happy kids.

Jon Severs:
And you've been in some of the most high-pressure situations possible really, like it for a sports person like 2012 London Olympics, the pressure on you in that games. One of the big issues in education is resilience, how we support people to build resilience to build confidence, like what from your experience, could you say are the fundamentals of you being able to understand and process that sort of pressure and withstand it?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, again, the pressures, it’s not easy dealing with pressure, you know, being a teacher and going okay, this is the numbers that kids need to be able to pass this exam and it's hard, it's challenging and at times, you know, when they haven't hit that you do feel disappointed. But again, you got to think about the moment where you go, okay? Just, you know, I will keep going and keep fighting and with me 2012 I had so much pressure, the whole nation was waiting for me to do to win that gold medal, I was the poster boy me Jessica Ennis, and the whole nation waiting for it. But I never saw it as that way. I went, listen, this is what I love. This is what I do. I put in the work, I run 120 miles week in week out, I've trained for this for the last four years, this is my moment. And as I saw the stadium, so packed, looked around, Union Jacks everywhere. And I was like, oh, these people are here for me. So it's how we use in how we stir it. And again, I could have gone, oh god, look at these people here. I can't do anything. And you do. And he does hit certain people in a different way. But I use it as a positive. And again, for all of us. And I think there'll be a moment where we go, tough, but you got to remember the good times to get us through and keep grafting, keep working.

Jon Severs:
Do you think that was a particular characteristic that you have? Is it something that you learned through your experience? Or is it something that actually your PE teacher, his confidence in you and his motivation for you? Directly, there's a line between that and your reaction to that pressure?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, again, if it wasn't my teacher I wouldn't be here. But again, it's like observing the kids and see what they are, you know, we have certain kids that were very chill, very relaxed, you got the loud one, and you got an understanding taht. And again, for me, I've always one thing that my mum always taught me from young age, be adapting, she meant be adapting anywhere you go in the world, don't expect things to be exactly the same and all of us, and sometimes we put that pressure on ourselves and go, I've got to react this way, I've got to go and do this because of my job because of what I need to do. And I think that's so wrong in a way. Because, yeah, you got to be professional and do it and act certain ways. But again, I just see that it's okay, if there's certain ways you have to behave, do it, but it's not me. Me being me is just, you know, be yourself.

Jon Severs
: And we talked a bit before about young kids finding their identity in football or basketball or, and that becomes the entirety of their focus. And teachers spend a lot of time going well, you need a Plan B or you need a Plan C, you know, so but you must have been incredibly driven. And so, but also, you know, your PE teacher clearly kept you rounded, like how do you how do you do that? How did he say, yeah, you're an amazing runner. But there's this over here as well.

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, again, it's been able to give a taste and having a taste. Again, you know, I had the national,I had the talent. And then I went from the system will run for my club, and then went for Middlesex County and then run for England. And then when I run for England, I was thinking, I want to run for Great Britain. I was hungry, and I wanted to run for a group. And then when you run for Great Britain, you like, okay, that was great. I've got my GB Best, I'm good. And as a junior, I want to make into the senior ranks. And then once you've made in the senior ranks, you're like, okay, what's next, and then the Europeans and then there's a system that you set. And then when you when the Europeans because the world champs, and then from the world champion, you’re like Olympics, and that's the moment and I again, it's been able to, you know, always have ambition or always, you know, have a goal. My goal was always, you know, to win, when I achieved that, what's next? What can I do? Even when I won the Olympics, I was like, okay, cross the line to your two Olympic medals. Can I retain this? Can I do that? Well, that was that was my mind.

Jon Severs:
It sounds like it was really structured. So your ambition, at the back of your head probably was ultimately, yes, an Olympic champion, but you had a very good pathway up, saying okay, well, if I get there, then I can go there, then I can go there. It Do you think that's similar? Like if you've got a young footballer who dreams of playing for Arsenal? And actually was like, well, let's be the best player on your team, then let's be the best player at county level and work like that.

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, I think you have to have a system. But also I think if the kids are there, you got to let them make mistakes, let them see it, let them see it. And then again, try and you know, stir it into there and say, listen, this, you need to do this right and slowly. And again, I think kids at a certain age, when they're 16, 17, that's when something kicks in in their mind and go, okay, I really want it. And you see other kids, even myself, I've seen great athletes where they're so good in the junior and they're doing all this right. And by the time they get 17,18 they hated it because they're not enjoyed and felt like they have to just go and do it. And at times we have to do certain things, but also you've got to enjoy it. And honestly for me running was something that I enjoy, something that made me happy. And even though at times I was disappointed in myself and angry in myself again, I was just like, okay, what do I need to do to change that? And as long as you're willing to do that, and willing to admit your mistakes and say, okay, well, you know what hands up, I made a mistake here. That's not gonna happen again, you made a note and then you're like, okay, what can I do to change that? And again, for me, my team was always structure, you know, people that I got on well with people that can help me and give me a positive influence in terms of giving me good attitude, not to say, that was bad rest done. Yeah, at times, you know, sometimes you got to admit and say, I've got it wrong, but there wasn't gonna go. That was bad as bad keep bringing it up.

Jon Severs:
Yeah. And then the next focus of your career, then you've chosen to come and speak here. Is education going to be a big part of what you want to you want to talk about and you want to influence?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, for sure. And I think, as I said, if you look at my story and where came from, you would never think you know, I would get this far. And if it wasn't for my teacher who supported me, took me to local club. And then again, the club the system, I wouldn’t be here. And for me, I'm very passionate about being able to give back to the community and younger kids, and particularly in schools, the system, and I would love to be able to, you know, for me, in my next ideal thing would be able to get into the coach and get into support, be a mentor for the kids and show them it doesn't matter what colour you are, what religion you are, what you are, you can still get to the top and you can through hard work. And I believe, you know, as long as you work hard and keep grafting and keep believing yourself, you can get there. With all of us, I think we do, we do question ourselves a lot of the time, but you know what, we must be doing something right to be here.

Jon Severs:
So we're gonna open it up. So if you want to ask Mo a question. I'm sure lots of people do. Raise your hand high and the team will try and get a microphone down to you. We’ve got one at the front here, we've got one near the back. And they're just battling their way through to two seconds.

Q&A with Sir Mo Farah

I work with unaccompanied asylum seeking children and it’s International Refugees Week in June, we’re holding a festival. Are you doing anything on this and if not, would you like to join us?

Sir Mo Farah: Honestly, I would love to show my support. But again, I've got so much on, I’ve got the Great Manchester Run this Weekend. And then after that I've got the Great North Run, and when I do finish the Great North Run, I definitely will retire and get involved with the community, and kids and vulnerable kids out there. So it's something that you know, I'll always want to give back because I was one of them.

Hello Mr Farah. You were saying that you wanted to go into mentoring coaching? And is that with a lot of disengaged young men? Or is that something like, like, you know, in terms of inspiration, mentoring kind of specific young people in cohorts? Is that something you're looking to do?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, I want to be able to give back to the younger kids and children who are vulnerable and other stuff. And again, for me, because all I’ve known is athletics from such a young age, have travelled around the world going to many places and you understand the system and you understand what it takes to get to the top. Having that skills, that's what I want to do been able to do, give back and get involved with coaching and particularly more with schools and the system.

I was delighted to hear you make reference to the teacher who was seminal in your success. Have you had the opportunity to talk to him and go back and share?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, we're still close. He was actually my best man at my wedding. So we're very close and he was also part of the documentary I did and we're we're still close. And again, it's just understanding what that person made different to your life, because if it wasn't for that moment, or him taking you to the actual club, driving you in his car, picking you up, taking you to races, then I don't think I would I would be here.

What was your biggest challenge of your career? And how did you overcome it?

Sir Mo Farah:
My biggest challenge in my career was not making the Olympic final in Beijing 2008. That was so hard. In 2008, leading up to it, I had some good races, I was training well, got my kit, very excited. And then then went to Beijing at the time, and went through first round, got eliminated and I didn’t make the final. I was so disappointed in myself, because I told people to come and watch me, you’re gonna see the Olympics, make sure you watch it, and it just felt like I let so many people down and let myself down. And I think it took me months to get over it. But again, that's what it takes, you know, sometimes you things doesn't go your way. It's how you react and what you do obey. And at that moment, I was like, That ain't gonna happen again, I'm gonna try and do everything right, I'm gonna train well, I'm going to sleep and live, you know, a simple life. And again, it's been able to understand, you know, certain things, understand why did that happen? How did it happen? What can I do? What can I change to prevent that?

Thanks, thank you, thank you so much. You give such a great story about how impactful your teacher was. And I just wondered how you felt or what you felt needed to change in education, so that sports can be more inclusive? And I'm saying that against the backdrop of, you know, schools having so many sort of academic targets, and that being very much the focus, also, the fact that, you know, different sports are done in different schools, and then meaning that kids have access to different things, and they could actually just absolutely, totally skip the opportunity of engaging in a sport that they're really good at. So I just wondered what your thoughts were in terms of how you think things needed to change?

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, I can, school, you know, there's a lot of schools out there who are very much engaged. And it depends on the area and certain things and again, for all of us, depends on what county or certain things, you have to hit certain numbers and, that's the way the system is. But again, if I was starting from basic again, in terms of seeing that I would change that and think, okay, what is this could what this kid good at, okay? Academically, we've got six guys, who are all so smart, we’ve got six guys who are very well spoken on certain things, and bring in again you know, certain areas and not have the expectation of going, you got to hit certain standards, you got to hit this standard in terms of you to make into the school. And I think it's just seeing the talent of the kids, and observing that and then giving support how other way we can and again, this shows me, a kid who couldn't even speak a word of English, that naughty kid to become who I become. And if it wasn't for sport, I wouldn’t be here. So again, it just shows the power of sports, you know, you don't have to be the smartest you don't have to be you can engage in these games.

Obviously, one of the things that seems to come across from all the stuff, you’re a very high achiever, we know that, but you seem to be very analytical, very reflective, and have been from the start. Is this something you've got naturally? Or is this something that you have had honed and helped and guided through your educational process you've been through?

Sir Mor Farah:
No, again, it comes across time. Because, you know, we all have certain ways. I've always been that kid bubbly, relaxed, a joker. But then again, it's just you know, accepting that who you are, and just making the most of it. And again, and also having been able to have, you know, travel around the world and going certain places, it does educate you. And again, it's just part of me.

Jon Severs:
I think we'd all like to say who thank you to Mo for joining us today.

Sir Mo Farah:
Yeah, one last thing I'll say guys. It's so nice to see so many great teachers and talk about how education is so important for all kids. But, again, don't question yourself, you must be doing something right to be here and keep believing in yourself. At times you might ask and go, it's hard, it's difficult, but you know what, you are changing kids lives. And if 100 Kids, one kid, makes it out, has a great job and become someone, you've done your part. So keep believing in yourself and keep believing in the kids. Because if you don't believe in the kids and the younger generation, we would never achieve and again, my teacher believed in me so again, maybe that's why I'm here. If it wasn't for him wouldn't be here. Thank you.