A controversial new course is part of an enterprising college's drive to combine sport and learning. Mike Prestage reports.
A FURTHER education college in the North-east has had students beating a path to the door of its sporting academies. But its latest venture is proving contentious.
For the next two years, 22 of the country's most talented young boxers will combine studying with honing their talents in the "noble" art.
The launch follows highly popular academies in men's and women's football already established at East Durham community college, and there are plans for more in basketball and cricket.
The college in Peterlee, County Durham, recognised that setting up the country's first residential boxing academy could tap into the huge support for the sport in the region.
Ian Prescott, chief executive, said: "I recognise that this is a sports-mad region and by driving sport and education forward together, it was a method of widening participation.
"The college is now one of the fastest growing in the country with an 170 per cent increase in numbers over the past three years and the success of our sports programmes has helped raise our profile."
Boxing was a subject nobody else had thought of, but a meeting with a local promoter and the enthusiastic support of the Amateur Boxing Association led to the academy opening this term.
The college also provided pound;250,000 and has, since September 1998, seen pound;2 million spent on sports facilities including a new hall, gym, all-weather pitch, football pitches and a running track.
The boxing course could have been filled four times over with quality candidates. Prescott dismisses claims that it should have no place in college life. Or, as some suggest, exist at all.
"Boxing is a contentious issue, but it is a legal and an Olympic spot," he argues. "Here there is a disciplined environment and a professional coach. Medical expertise is on site. Surely this is the right environment to promote boxing. It is not for us to play God and ban it."
The course tutor Frank Collison, a former Parachute Regiment officer who boxed in the 1972 Olympics, believes the project will dispel the myth that boxing and academic studies do not go together.
After a daily early-morning run and work-out in the gym the students progress to classrooms where they do a range of courses from basic skills to A-levels, national vocational qualifications and degree access courses.
Mr Collinson said: "This is a golden opportunity to produce exciting young talent and change the way boxing is viewed. The working-class perception of the sport is all wrong. The sport needs to work within the education system."
He added that a lot of youngsters left the sport between 16 and 18 because of the pressures of combining the training levels needed to be national champions with academic work. Now that problem had been resolved, he said.
The young boxers have travelled from all over England and stay in nearby residential accommodation.
All say the harsh training and lifestyle regime - no drinking alcohol or smoking - is easier to maintain when everybody is in the same position.
Savdhul Zaman, 16, from Middlesbrough, said: "It is great. Sometimes back at home I wouldn't feel like training but here there is no choice. We are being trained as athletes by a top coach and at the same time are getting an education."
And Andrew Stenson, 21, from Worcester, believes the sport gets a bad press.
He said: "It is a disciplined sport. There is a lot of respect among the athletes and fitness is second to none. There are more injuries in rugby and football.".