Fellowship of the ring

7th May 2010 at 01:00
When a specialist sports college teamed up with a groundbreaking boxing academy, not everyone was convinced. But the impact on academic achievement and pupil discipline suggests the combination is a knock out

In the red corner, we have Benny from the Frank Bruno Boxing Academy in Bromley, Kent, hopping restlessly from one foot to the other. In the blue corner stands his opponent from Hollington Amateur Boxing Club in Southwark, south London. Benny's eyes are firmly fixed on the ring. The hall is packed with friends and family who have come to watch the first big fight of the year. They cheer as the compere, suited and bow-tied, welcomes the pair on to the canvas.

As the music blasting from the speakers gradually fades, the young boxers adopt their combat posture, gloves raised and ready to pounce as soon as the referee gives the signal.

With the dramatic lighting, a row of professional judges and former Great Britain boxing coach Wayne Llewellyn sitting in the wings, it is hard to believe that we are in a school assembly hall.

The Frank Bruno Academy boxers are, in fact, sixth-form students, and Neil Miller, the compere, is their deputy head.

Frank Bruno's academy is part of the Priory School, a specialist sports college in Kent. The academy's gym and sports equipment are shared with the Priory pupils. Students from the boxing academy - who are all sixth- formers - take lessons alongside their non-boxing classmates at the Priory School.

But for the 10 youngsters who enrol in the boxing academy each year - there are 20 students across two year groups - their boxing training is built into the school day and they are coached by some of the country's best boxing professionals.

The academy grew out of the introduction of the non-contact version of the sport to the school's PE curriculum in 2005. Although non-contact boxing is not violent and there is no risk of injury to competitors, its association with its better-known contact versions still made it a controversial choice.

Nick Ware, headteacher at the Priory School, admits that he took some convincing before he would introduce it. "I would turn on the telly for Muhammad Ali, but I didn't really agree with it," he says. "It is the typical approach that people have to boxing. But Neil (Miller) is a former boxer and very difficult to disagree with."

Mr Miller started boxing during his stint in the Army between the ages of 16 and 21 and went on to compete for Brunel University. He is the driving force behind the boxing academy and after getting to know Wayne Llewellyn, the professional boxer and coach in the audience who also founded the Boxing4Schools initiative, Mr Miller was convinced that it would be a great boost for the sport and the pupils involved.

After the non-contact version proved so popular with pupils, Mr Miller suggested the idea of an amateur boxing academy attached to the school.

At first, there was some uncertainty among staff, but Mr Ware was assured by boxing professionals that the academy students would be allowed in the ring only when they had reached a certain level of fitness and had been trained in how to avoid injury. Before and after a fight, competitors are checked over by doctors, who are extremely strict about who they will allow into the ring.

Since the boxing academy was set up in September 2008, the school has put on an amateur match each term and the shows have turned into one of the most popular events in the school calendar.

But while the Priory pupils can enjoy the excitement and competition of watching these matches, most will only ever take part in the non-contact version.

Even so, the non-contact boxing club is one of the most popular of the after-school activities on offer at the school. And of its 25 members, 15 are girls. The pupils practise building up their fitness through skipping and strength training while also learning the high level of discipline required.

Yet not everyone is convinced. The British Medical Association (BMA), which represents doctors, is opposed to both professional and amateur boxing. While the association admits that evidence of the damaging effects of boxing is less clear-cut in the amateur version of the sport - in which competitors wear headguards - it says research suggests that it could still cause brain damage.

Some studies have found no evidence of cumulative brain injury, but the BMA cites a Swedish study which found that levels of a marker for brain damage were four times higher in boxers than in other athletes.

As the excitement builds before this evening's fight, both Mr Ware and his deputy are adamant that boxing is primarily about fitness and discipline rather than violence.

"It is not about being whacked - it is about missing the punches," says Mr Miller. "When they see good boxers fighting at a decent level, they can see the skill level of the guys - it is remarkable. I don't think people understand the level of fitness necessary to get through three two-minute rounds in the ring."

If he had doubts, Mr Ware was won over when he saw the positive impact boxing was having on the academy pupils. Unlike other sports, it takes such a high level of skill even to be able to set foot in a boxing ring that these aspiring boxers have a lot of work to do.

"I would say that our boxers are probably the hardest working in the school," he says. "They are here at 7.30am for training and they stay behind after lessons. If you look at their backgrounds, you would not believe it. Boxing does bring that discipline and that self-worth."

For the academy students, boxing has provided a focus that many were previously lacking. Daily training sessions are obligatory and this discipline filters into other aspects of their lives. Mr Miller cites one pupil taking part in tonight's fight who was expelled from a mainstream school and a pupil referral unit before he was taken on at the boxing academy.

"He is now passing all his classes," says Mr Miller. "He is a very bright lad, but obviously he had problems with (his) behaviour in the past. Boxing gives you a focus and he is learning how to manage his behaviour in other situations."

Mr Ware says that boxing has played a big part in instilling a sense of pride in the pupils. "We want them to feel, `I can do this'," he says. "It is easy for people to look at schools with such a mixed socio-economic background as ours and make assumptions about who we are."

Many pupils are from the nearby Ramsden estate and surrounding areas. The number of those entitled to free school meals is almost double the national average.

Boxing is not the only way the school is trying to give its pupils a sense of self-worth. As well as being a specialist sports college, the Priory is also an academy for Crystal Palace Ladies' Football Club Juniors.

Alongside the sporting pursuits, staff at the Priory broadened the curriculum to provide a range of vocational subjects, tailored to the needs of individual learners. The effect of these measures has been dramatic: the proportion of pupils achieving five A-C grades at GCSE has risen from 28 per cent six years ago to 74 per cent last year.

Sport is often credited with teaching young people how to work as part of a team. But to the uninitiated, boxing seems a solitary pursuit. Yet quite the reverse is true, says Mr Miller. All the training is done within a team and the other members of the club show their support from the sidelines.

"It is a similar relationship to the one you get with boys in the Army," he says. "Unless you have actually experienced that kind of thing, you don't get that kind of closeness.

"My best mate when we were boxing at university is godfather to my kids, purely because we used to knock ten bells out of each other when we were sparring. He will be a lifelong friend."

As Benny's fight draws to a close, there seems little doubt that he has outwitted his opponent.

Far from being a battle to the death, the two young boxers began by tentatively touching their paws together, feeling out each other's weaknesses. But during the three rounds, Benny has manoeuvred himself to the centre of the ring and forged through his opponent's defences.

Soon after, as he holds his trophy aloft, beaming, it is clear from the roar of the crowd that Benny is on home turf. His classmates are on their feet and cheering his name.

There are high hopes that some of the Frank Bruno Academy boxers will make it to the 2012 Olympics. But those that do not go on to make it as professionals will still have judging and coaching qualifications as well as a sense of purpose and discipline that will stand them in good stead in the long term.

"That is exactly what you want to do with an education," says Mr Miller. "As well as giving them qualifications, it gives them life skills, which are just as important."

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