Photograph of University of East London's Geoff Thompson


An East End for everyone: meet UEL’s Geoff Thompson

“It’s a fantastic time to be an East Ender,” says Geoff Thompson from his bright office at the University of East London. It’s a room decorated with mementos accumulated over the last 25 years spent advocating the power of sport.

“There’s a whole new world being built here,” he says. “I always see the buildings like hardware. They don’t come alive without the software, and those are the people. That’s where I get very excited.”

The East End he’s referring to is somewhere that in the last two decades has pivoted from a place better known for its opportunities than its lack thereof. And it’s a very different East End to the one he grew up in.

The University of East London campus

UEL's Docklands campus

Photo: Sam Bush

Thompson’s office does a good job of telling his story. A little Japanese sculpture behind his desk speaks to the five-times world champion’s lifelong karate practice. A dated portrait of a smiling schoolboy stands prominently behind his desk. This is Benji Stanley, whose untimely death on the streets of Manchester prompted Thompson to establish his charity, the Youth Charter, 25 years ago. Since formation, the Youth Charter has developed countless sporting programmes to keep young people out of gangs throughout the UK and around the world. He counts the late Nelson Mandela among his many collaborators, whose smiling photograph, incidentally, is also hanging on the wall.

In hindsight, it seems inevitable that Thompson ended up here as chair of governors at UEL. “I’ve known the University of East London as a very left-wing, in-your-face institution. It campaigned hard for the rights of those who would normally not have an opportunity.” This role, he was told by the university’s headhunter, “‘reflects everything you’ve been about personally and professionally. This is you, in every which way, shape or form.’”

UEL campaigned hard for the rights of those who would normally not have an opportunity.

Geoff Thompson, UEL chair of governors

Thompson is a big-picture speaker. When he discusses his work, he doesn’t talk tactics. Instead, he might quote the late UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, “Education is peace-building in all but name.” What he is clear about, however, is the commitment he’s made to his students. “It’s for us to stretch them and challenge them and equip them with the applied learning of their specialist subject matter,” he says. “I’m advocating that the bar of excellence should not have any perceived or otherwise barriers of what you look like, what you believe in, where you come from, what your lifestyle choice is.”

When Thompson says this, it is informed by his own life experience. His father died when he was seven years old, which led to his mother moving them both from Wolverhampton down to Hackney — something he realised, later on, was a traumatic shift from the country to the 1980s inner city. “I adapted to my environment by learning Cockney pretty quickly. But I couldn’t do anything about the colour of my skin.”

The bar of excellence should not have any perceived or otherwise barriers of what you look like, what you believe in, where you come from.

Geoff Thompson, UEL chair of governors

Geoff Thompson at the University of East London

Geoff Thompson

Photo: Tian Khee Siong

Thompson picked up karate primarily as a form of self defence. His childhood enterprise was making £7 a day selling East Indian patties, and knew he needed to protect his stock. He went to a youth centre and gave karate a try. “£1.50 changed my life,” he said. “Like a good book finds you as opposed to you finding it, it gave me everything.”

His instructors saw his potential and the rest, one might say, is history. Thompson achieved his black belt and went on to become a five-times karate world champion. “Medals give you currency,” he says. “I developed a curriculum for life — my mental, physical and emotional self discipline — as well as developing individual interpersonal skills.”

It also gave him the tools he needed for what became a lifelong mission working with young people to break the barriers that might traditionally hold them back from sport. The way karate uplifted him is something he’s been working to impart ever since. His charity Youth Charter has helped combat gang culture and violence in the UK and around the world since 1993. To him, sport is a human right.

An image of University of East London from Redgrave Bridge overlooking the water

UEL campus

Photo: Sam Bush

Thompson's advocacy has brought him a string of prestigious initials: MBE, FRSA, DL. He attributes his deft navigation of various national sporting boards to his karate practice, but he also attributes his mother’s upbringing. Thompson admits more than once that he’s a mummy’s boy, and that he is skeptical of people who aren’t. His mother is almost 91 and still lives in Hackney.

A little further east, UEL is a place very much rooted in its East End context. The student body represents more than 135 cultures, and the vast majority come from within a 10-mile radius.

For this changing part of London, Thompson knows where there is redevelopment there is opportunity. His role now is to ensure his students recognise these opportunities, and understand that a clear path exists from UEL to employment in a place like the business park being built at Royal Albert Dock.