Teaching them fight and flight skills can make all the difference to pupils' attitudes. David Bocking watches a self-defence session that does just that
A large man with the face of Hannibal Lecter and the body of Mike Tyson is being pummelled by a 15-year-old Barnsley schoolgirl. "Hit him," scream the girl's friends, who are all watching carefully. "Bang his head on the floor!" Another girl joins the melee, and the man in the mask falls to his knees, at which point his opponents continue to punch and kick his vital organs. "No! Run!" says Graham Summerfield, and the girls look up from their frenzied attack and sprint away from their assailant, to the applause of their classmates.
John Tumman removes his protective mask and breathes a sigh of relief. "We can take about a dozen hits in this gear, but in real life after two or three you're gone," he says, as his colleague Graham puts on a head shield, checks his padding and prepares to take a turn at being beaten up by a PEclass of Year 11 girls.
When she arrived at Dearne High School last autumn, the new head of girls'
PE, Angie Astbury, found many key stage 4 girls had little interest in traditional PE. "You have what I call the aesthetic girls, who enjoy exercise to music, aerobics and all the non-competitive elements, but you've got another hardcore group who are switched off from all that and want the more physical, competitive things. Having these two types in the same group is like oil and vinegar. And then there's a third group who don't like anything. It can be a real struggle."
A chance discussion led Angie to Graham Summerfield's Anshin Self Defence organisation, which was already working in several local schools. "His scheme of work seemed like it was going to fit all the girls."
The Barnsley classes are offered in blocks of six to eight sessions, covering principles of self-defence and personal safety. Early lessons include how to use different types of punches, how to fend off an attack using elbows and knees, or by turning personal items such as lipstick or keys into weapons, and how to escape from chokes and strangles. There are lessons on suitable striking points and on maintaining a "fence" - a safe distance - from a potential attacker.
Law relating to defence is discussed and girls also learn how to improve their posture and stance to deter attack, and how to travel and use taxis safely. And towards the end of the sessions there's a class with the careful title of "groundwork". "We don't want to sensationalise it by using the word 'rape', but it is about doing anything, flinging them off, gouging them, anything to get out of the situation of being on the ground where an attacker is about to assault you," says Angie. Grabbing and pulling an ear can be just as effective as kicking, she adds.
The girls might be learning a lot of potentially dangerous fighting techniques, Angie concedes, but the course takes care to show that attacking your assailant is a last resort. Taking a well-lit route home, avoiding secluded paths, travelling in groups, and using pre-booked taxis (and checking the driver's ID) are all emphasised as ways to avoid potential danger. "It's all taught from the defensive point of view. If I thought the girls weren't getting that message I wouldn't have Graham in," says Angie.
She also rejects the suggestion that the course is unnecessarily alarmist: a teenage girl from the former mining village surrounding the school was raped last year, and all the pupils remember the televised late-night CCTV footage of a girl being abducted on her way home - an attack which took place less than 24 kilometres away. "It's scary when someone like that is trying to attack you," says 16-year-old Vicki Diamond, watching Graham approach one of her friends as a "predator" in his mask and cricket pads.
"But if anything did happen, with this I think I'd be able to get away. He shows you how to get over the adrenalin shock by shouting, and showing them you've got the same anger and pushing them away to give a warning. It's made me feel more self-confident. I'd have been too scared to get away before we did this."
The course was initially offered to three classes of KS4 girls, many of whom Angie describes as "disaffected". Assessments after the course started showed that many enjoyed the classes, whether or not they liked traditional PE lessons, and the sessions led to students feeling more self-confident and more aware of how to avoid danger. Some girls said they now felt "braver".
"I see some girls who've done the classes walking down the corridor with their head up and shoulders back, whereas before they'd have been stood waiting for everyone to get out of the way," says Angie. "After the first half-term, everyone was asking if they could do self-defence." As a result, the school found funding to allow all KS4 girls to take the classes (each 50-minute session costs pound;20).
"I think there is a certain image about martial arts," says Angie. "Some kids would put this on a par with other sports, but a lot of the more disaffected kids would feel there's more kudos in doing self-defence than netball."
The courses are now so popular that Angie can use them as a negotiating tool with girls who didn't do PE in the past. "There are some girls who don't like changing, who don't like going outside, and for some girls just carrying a bag of kit around is an issue. But the idea of these classes is to get them engaged. Now we can say: 'if you like this, if you want to do self-defence or have more lessons from outside agencies you're going to have to bring your kit'."
There's another round of applause as the masked predator is defeated by two assertive 15-year-olds. The next in line eyes up her assailant. "I'm gonna kick your ass," she says.