Mark Coates

The boxing club dealing a knockout blow to exclusions

A boxing club set up and run by key workers such as teachers and police officers is ensuring children stay in school and become active community members, with huge educational benefits, writes its founder Mark Coates

Boxing club for vulnerable pupils

The Heart of Hayling Boxing Club is not a normal boxing gym. For a start, it’s strictly non-contact for the vast majority of our boxers. Secondly, since we founded the club in 2018, we’ve been based in a community centre and are run by a number of key workers involved in the lives of young children who struggle to stay out of trouble – teachers, firefighters, police officers, paramedics and others. And thirdly, at the moment, we aren’t actually doing any boxing.

But our impact on children who have been excluded, children at risk of exclusion and children with special educational needs and disabilities? It has been – and it continues to be – huge: I should know, as I am an advanced skills teacher at The Hayling College school, and I run the club, so I see the results first-hand.

Boxing has been used as a positive intervention, in various guises, with excluded students across the country, and we do have children who fall into that category who attend the club. Jake*, an autistic spectrum disorder teenager in Year 10 who attended a pupil-referral unit after exclusions from two secondary schools, found boxing the best outlet for his aggression. Not many things made Jake smile, but our boxing academy really did. Jake has received more awards, certificates and medals in his past 18 months boxing than he had in his entire school experience. He knows he is respected and valued at his boxing club, and the knock-on impact on the rest of his life has been huge.

But this is an all-inclusive club aimed at early intervention for any child who struggles in school and those who just want to come. It is a place where everyone is welcomed, where the accessible and inclusive GB Boxing Awards curriculum is religiously followed and where every session ends with a warm-down and awards and rounds of applause. Young people get free fruit and water and have fun while they stay fit. And if they can’t afford the £2 suggested donation, they can come for free.

Most of our young people (ages 5-17) come along voluntarily, but we also get “referrals” of a sort: young people whose teachers or GPs have suggested to parents that they might find it beneficial or those whom the local Hampshire constabulary have recommended should come and train with us.

Ted* is an example of a vulnerable young person who joined us before things came to a head at his school. His attention deficit hyperactivity disorder often landed him in trouble as he “engaged in off-task discussion” and started to take part in dangerous activities in school to secure friendships.

However, in Year 9, Ted was encouraged by his tutor to attend the club. He loved it. He excelled in the drills and skills, he lost three stone of excess weight, he took a course to become a GB boxing tutor. He turned himself around and, like Jake, this applied to every facet of his life. He’s now in Year 11 and has applied to a college course as he aims to become a sports coach.

We are proud of our diverse boxers, who are from all walks of life, from the privileged to the impoverished, the disabled to the able-bodied, all of whom are learning the craft of hand-to-hand combat and benefiting from the physical fitness and confidence that comes with it. We have 150 young people attending weekly and the impact in schools has been significant: once-challenging children are turning their lives around.

So when we were forced to close on 16 March owing to the coronavirus, we were worried. Now unable to reach out to the likes of Ted and Jake and the scores of other young people for whom the Heart of Hayling had become a second home, the coaches became concerned about a potentially diminishing effect on the community; we didn’t want our volunteer hours to disappear into the ether, either. We all gave time for our community and we wanted to continue to play a role.

So we decided to transform the boxing club into a service for vulnerable members of the community. Our paramedics and first responders had already made contact with the local chemists and so, on 18 March, when we should have been taking four boxing classes from 4.30pm until 9pm, we met with a group of local activists called the Hayling Helpers, and offered to take responsibility for the pharmaceutical delivery service.

Fast-forward a month, and we have established an efficient system for delivering medicines (at least 700 a week).

We have also set up a fitness scheme for every child in the community, called #SkipForHayling. We are collating and posting videos of local people skipping in isolation alongside instructional videos of “how to skip”. We have spent the little money we had in the kitty on over 100 skipping ropes and are delivering these while we’re out on our medicine drops.

If nothing else, our boxers will keep their footwork and fitness intact while connecting with the club through social media, and the parents are loving it, too.

The club was never just about boxing – it’s a collaboration of all the key workers that come into a child’s life, all pulling together to support those children. Closure due to the coronavirus could have resulted in that support disappearing but in switching to engage in community service, we have modelled what community engagement looks like and we have maintained connections with our young people. That is an important lesson.

And it has inspired us. We have already applied for funding so that we can run a literacy and numeracy club to close the gap between our schools’ most able and most vulnerable, which will no doubt have widened during the lockdown. We also expect to have to find ways to cut costs as funding streams become sparse.

This crisis has highlighted that our club exists because of the goodwill of teachers and other key workers. As long as that goodwill exists, we will continue to give our young people a fighting chance.

Mark Coates is lead practitioner in English at The Hayling College in Hampshire, and founder of the Heart of Hayling Boxing Club

*Young people’s names have been changed to protect their anonymity

This article originally appeared in the 22 May 2020 issue under the headline “The community boxing clever for vulnerable pupils”

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