Violent and disruptive teenagers excluded from their school classes should be dispatched to a new wave of alternative education "boot camps" to save them from gang life, the Education Secretary said last night.
Michael Gove praised a pioneering boxing academy in a London borough badly hit by the August riots as a "shining example" of how to transform the lives of vulnerable teenagers.
The Hackney Boxing Academy, which is part-sponsored by charitable donations to Sport Relief, acts as a last resort for pupils who would otherwise be permanently excluded from schools because of their behaviour. It has been dubbed "boxing boot camp" and insists on rigorous discipline and adherence to simple rules. Transgressions are punished by hundreds of press-ups.
The academy has remarkable success: more than 90 per cent of its pupils – who are mostly Afro-Caribbean teenage boys – graduate on to further education, training or employment.
"We need more schools like it to drive up the quality of academic standards of alternative education," Mr Gove said.
He described the standards in secondary school "sin bins" as "often so poor that scarcely any children achieve the minimum level of qualifications they need to succeed". He added: "We must change this. No child's education should be abandoned, regardless of their behaviour or the problems facing that child." Charlie Taylor, the Government's behaviour tsar, also demanded the establishment of more schools like the Boxing Academy. "I think they're doing a terrific job," he said yesterday. "I think they have found a way of selecting some of the most incredibly disruptive children and getting them back into education. They re-engage them and don't lose touch with the idea of academic achievement, either."
More than 37,000 schoolchildren in England and Wales are judged too difficult for their schools to handle and are dumped in Pupil Referral Units or other "Alternative Provision".
Take Adam, 15, who has been at the Hackney Boxing Academy a week after abusing teachers and punching a boy in the face. Facing permanent exclusion from classes – and all that can entail in Hackney, one of the capital's poorest boroughs and a hotbed of lawlessness in last summer's riots – Adam was sent to the academy as a last resort.
"We take those who are absolutely not working out in the mainstream schools," says Anna Cain, 41, the Academy's founder and director. "They stay here from age 13 to 16 and they do extremely well with us. We take the young kids who if they weren't here would be the fodder for the gangs, hanging on the streets, where someone says to them, 'You're not going to get arrested, carry this for me' – and then they are hooked."
Each of the 30 children at the academy is allocated to a "pod" with a pod leader – an experienced boxer – who stays with the group day in, day out. The key principles of the Academy, which has received £107,000 funding from Sport Relief over the past two years, are discipline, commitment, and strict, simple rules consistently applied.
Freddie, 22, is Adam's pod leader and started five months ago. "There are six kids in the pod," he explains. "Some of them come in for breakfast, and when they arrive they hand over their phones and are patted down for knives."
Rule breaches are punished by 100 (or even 500) press-ups; punctuality, neatness and good behaviour and performance (by the pod and by individuals) get rewards, not of gold stars but cash. When two kids in his pod were caught fighting in the street, and seemed set to resume inside the Academy, they were made to spar in the gym using gloves.
These are the roughest kids in Hackney, yet the atmosphere is neither menacing nor cowed, just busy and focused. "We go far further than any school in involving ourselves in their lives," says Ms Cain. "We are absolutely changing lives."
Of the six who left at the end of the last academic year, five went on to further education and one took up an apprenticeship as a mechanic.
Other youth crime projects helped by Sport Relief include the charity FARE in Glasgow – where violent crime in one of the poorest areas has dropped almost 40 per cent in five years, partly because of the project – and the Track Academy in Brent, north London, run by Connie Henry, a former Commonwealth Games medal-winning triple jumper. She takes children at risk of exclusion and promotes their athletic potential. One of her charges is Confidence Lawson, a former gang member now ranked the 12th fastest runner in Britain. "After joining us he very slowly learned discipline and his attitude began to change," Ms Henry said.
Mr Lawson has found a job and a university place, after Ms Henry threatened to bar him from training if he did not behave.
Mr Lawson says: "The majority of people I used to hang around with are in jail, but I just want to run and keep winning. I am a changed man."
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