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Minister favours return of the ring

The Schools Amateur Boxing Association is working closely with Sports Minister Iain Sproat to promote its sport in schools.

Shortly after the death last month of boxer James Murray from brain damage, Mr Sproat called boxing "a terrific sport" and suggested re-introducing it in schools with improved safety standards.

Dudley Saville, general secretary of the SABA, which has around 70 schools affiliated to it, is setting up a schools' commission to revive the sport which is now largely confined to clubs. He hopes to produce a "major strategy" to work with schools by next spring.

But Keith Smith, the Secondary Heads' Association representative on the Central Council of Physical Recreation and a former boxing referee, said headteachers were firmly against the return of the sport.

A recent survey of 1,000 SHA schools showed that only three had some kind of programme.

And a spokeswoman for the Headmasters' Conference was not aware of any member schools offering the sport. Even Millfield, known for its wide range of sports, does not include it.

Lennox Lewis, the world-class boxer (see left), defended the sport, saying: "It teaches you self-respect; it builds you up physically and mentally. It gives you something to do every day; it separates the men from the boys. And your mother knows where you are."

Boxing has a cross-party following in Parliament, as a five-hour debate on sport revealed on Friday. Tom Pendry, shadow sports minister, was middleweight colonial champion in Hong Kong in 1957, and boxed for Oxford University. He is a steward of the British Boxing Board of Control, and chaired the safety committee which issued new guidelines last week.

Harry Greenway, Tory MP for Ealing North and a former deputy head, is vice-chairman of the all-party Friends of Boxing group. Both MPs said a ban would drive the sport underground and make it more dangerous, and Mr Greenway said: "I want the sport of boxing to be encouraged in schools."

But he wanted punches to the head to be made illegal at that level.

Labour MP for Hackney, Diane Abbott, did not condemn the sport. She said that in her area sportsmen and women were considered far more important and heroic than mere MPs.

At the start of the debate, which centred on Raising the Game, the Government's sports initiative launched last summer, Mr Sproat reaffirmed his commitment to putting sport back into the heart of school life. "We want to aim for two hours a week of sport within curriculum time, and another four hours a week outside it."

He was "surprised and disappointed" by the lack of information about what sport was played in school and further education colleges, and the "lack of dynamic support for sport in teacher training colleges".

The Further Education Funding Council would be carrying out an audit of college sports provisions and trends and the Office for Standards in Education would report on schools and teacher-training institutions.

As well as stopping the "gratuitous selling of playing fields, we are making National Lottery money available to buy back ground," said the minister.

Mr Pendry said the sports initiative was better than nothing, but added: "It is a patchwork-quilt policy of other people's ideals and ideas hurriedly put together."

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