HUNDREDS OF state schools are encouraging their pupils to take up boxing, with a three-fold increase in schools offering the sport over the past two years, the latest Government figures show.
But doctors are alarmed at the rise in popularity of an activity that they say is "totally unsuitable" for children and that can cause permanent brain damage.
Those working to spread boxing in schools say they are promoting a safe, non-contact version that is good for pupil behaviour, anger management, health, combating obesity and improving participation in sport.
And the sport is definitely growing in schools. A total of 431 state schools in England offer boxing, according to figures collected through the Government's annual school sport survey for last academic year released in a parliamentary question. That amounts to 3 per cent of state schools. The previous year it was 2 per cent; the year before that it was 1 per cent.
Carl Lander, a physical education teacher and regional co-ordinator for the Schools Amateur Boxing Association, said he was not surprised by the rise.
"There isn't a day goes by when I do not hear about another school expressing an interest and it is often coming from the top," he said.
"Heads are starting to realise that it works."
Mr Lander teaches at Teesdale school in County Durham, which he says was the first to offer boxing during PE lessons and which, in September, extended the opportunity to girls aged 14 to 16.
Mr Lander said health risks were kept to a minimum because the classes concentrated on the skill rather than the combat side of the sport and pupils were not allowed to land punches. "It offers all the exhilaration of boxing without the contact," he said.
But a British Medical Association spokeswoman said: "We would be wary of any type of boxing described as 'non-contact' as it could encourage children to move on to local amateur clubs.
"We do not believe children can make an informed decision about what they are getting into. They may not realise that the deliberate blows to the head they receive can cause permanent brain damage."
At present, boxing can be offered as an A-level PE option, but the schools'
boxing association is campaigning for it to be extended to GCSE courses.
The sport virtually died out in British schools during the 1960s, when a campaign to ban it from the education system won widespread support.
The Government figures also show that karate is on the increase and offered by 1,077 - 6 per cent - of England's state schools, compared with 5 per cent in 200405 and 4 per cent in 200304.
But judo is in sharp decline and offered by only 571 - 3 per cent - of schools, down from 6 and 8 per cent in the previous two years.
Other martial arts, such as kickboxing, were offered in 1,579 - 9 per cent - of schools, up from 7 and 4 per cent the previous two years.