Some say boxing is a knockout sport for promoting discipline, wellbeing and self-confidence, but it has many critics. Hannah Frankel steps in
In an age when school trips and even games of conkers are being curtailed for fear of injury, boxing, the ultimate contact sport, seems to buck the trend. In its Fifties heyday, thousands of boys boxed at school, but the practice largely died out in the Sixties. Since then, schools have baulked at the idea of legitimising violence, but an increasing number (4 per cent nationally) have found that it promotes discipline, wellbeing and self-confidence - in line with the Government's respect and healthy schools agenda.
Today, Burnage Media Arts College in south Manchester is one of just two state schools in England to have a fully-equipped boxing gym on its premises, complete with a boxing coach, full-size competition ring, punch bags and speed balls. Ian Fenn, the headteacher, first recognised the sport's potential when Amir Khan, the Commonwealth lightweight champion, visited Burnage. In a tough inner-city school where approximately 85 per cent of boys are Asian, Amir's influence was enormous.
Now 22 members of staff from across the board have trained as non-contact coaches, and boxing is part of every pupils' PE entitlement and a popular after-school activity.
"It is an excellent way of channelling pupils' aggression," says Ian, who believes that boxing is the antithesis of violence. "It's all about movement and athleticism and being fit. If the boys are caught fighting in school, they can't be in the boxing club."
The next step is to offer a boxing qualification from the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN), the exam board, which will be the equivalent of a GCSE. There are also plans to introduce contact boxing later this season, but this will only take place in the out-of-school club and will be only available to the most dedicated and skilled boys.
Kevin Williams, Manchester's first boxing development officer, has helped introduce boxing at Burnage as well as in three other local secondary schools, 40 primaries and a special needs school for disabled pupils. He thinks that by the end of this year, it will be available in 90 per cent of schools in Manchester. "Boxing is Britain's best kept secret," says Kevin, who helps pupils improve their movement, co-ordination, technique and general fitness in lessons that resemble choreographed dance routines.
"It often makes bullied pupils more confident, while it lowers aggression among the bullies themselves. There are such misconceptions about the sport. If it encourages a 14-year-old to get up at 6am every day, run for four miles and go to the gym four times a week, that dedication should be applauded."
Not everyone agrees, however. The British Medical Association (BMA) has campaigned for a ban on boxing since 1982 and Dr Vivienne Nathanson, its head of ethics, says that it is keen to highlight the risk to young people. "We don't believe that children can make an informed decision about the dangers of boxing," she says. "Headguards can protect against superficial injuries to the face. They do not stop the brain being shaken inside the skull. Boxing is an unsuitable activity for children."
But Ian Fenn thinks that, in terms of safety, it is far less dangerous than hockey or rugby, which Burnage also offers.
Any boxing programme delivered within a school is covered under the Amateur Boxing Association of England insurance, although the body must approve separate insurance before pupils take part in any type of sparring. Contrary to popular belief, most schools are not risk averse when it comes to contact sports. Hayle Academy, a new fee-paying school for seven to 16-year-olds in Cornwall, which opened last year, offers judo as its main sport, led by a senior Japanese instructor. The school's chapel has been converted into a full-size dojo martial arts training area.
"Judo isn't bish-bosh," says Malcolm Burkett, who founded the school last year. "The discipline, etiquette and ethos surrounding it all promote respect."
The BMA agrees that judo promotes discipline and the control of aggression, without posing the threat of brain injury that boxing does. But although most school sports have either increased in availability or remained constant, judo has declined. In the 200304 School Sports Survey, 8 per cent of schools offered judo, but now just 1 per cent provide it.
The same cannot be said of another popular contact sport, rugby. Last year, rugby league saw the biggest increase in availability - up from 12 per cent in 2004 to 33 per cent in 2007 - although previous years had not included "tag rugby" in the definition. The sport can be even more hazadous at school level, where pupils of vastly different size and weight are pitted against each other.
But Andy Harland from the Rugby Football League insists there have been no major injuries in the five years it has been running the annual Carnegie Champion Schools Tournament. Last year, more than 400 schools entered boys' teams for the competition, while 60 schools entered female teams.
"The safety of the child is paramount," says Andy. "There has been a big campaign around fair play, which reduces risk, especially since young people have trained to become match officials." Tag rugby is played in most primary schools today, while rugby league has made major inroads into secondaries - both in terms of non-contact touch rugby and the full-contact version.
DIVIDING THE PLAYING FIELD
Selection of school sports provided during 200607
Football: 98 per cent
Dance: 96 per cent
Netball: 81 per cent
Basketball: 69 per cent
Rugby Union: 66 per cent
Rugby League: 33 per cent
Archery: 22 per cent
Karate: 8 per cent
Lacrosse: 6 per cent
Equestrian: 5 per cent
Boxing: 4 per cent
Angling: 3 per cent
Skateboarding: 2 per cent
Judo: 1 per cent
Kabaddi: 1 per cent
Source: 2007 School Sport Survey.
BOXING BOUNCES BACK OFF THE ROPES
In the Fifties, boxing was a common component of secondary PE lessons, with 50,000 schoolboys regularly entering the national Schoolboys' Championships. But it fizzled out after a 1962 campaign to ban it in schools.
Today, about 4 per cent of schools offer boxing, but the Amateur Boxing Association is campaigning to get the sport on the GCSE PE syllabus.
The variety of sports offered in schools is rising, according to the latest survey, including those that would traditionally belong in the risky category. The average secondary school now offers more than 20 different sports, ranging from mountaineering to kabaddi (a cross between tag and wrestling), as well as traditional sports. The average range of sports offered by primary schools has increased to 16.
Sports injuries account for about half of all injuries in secondary school children, according to a report published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. But only a handful of injuries result in compensation awards to the pupils.
In 2004, Adam Graveney was awarded pound;7,000 after he was hit in the eye by a cricket ball at Colston's Collegiate School in Bristol. Adam, son of David Graveney, the former chairman of the England Test cricket selectors, was 17 at the time of the incident, which left him with only 10 per cent vision in his right eye.
Ramsey Elshafey won pound;100,000 damages in 2001 after he suffered neck injuries in a rugby match for his school, Newcastle-under-Lyme Grammar, four years earlier. He said the injuries prevented him from studying and realising his hopes of becoming a dentist.
In 2002, James Harding, 18, died after he clashed heads with an opponent during a rugby match for Sherborne School in Dorset.