Box clever: Why an old sport is making a comeback

Safety fears and an ideological distaste for competitive sports made boxing almost extinct in state schools. But a renaissance is under way, reports Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

It's lunchtime at Broad Oak Sports College, a comprehensive on a tightly knit 1930s housing estate in Bury, eight miles north-west of central Manchester, and two 13-year-olds are squaring up to each other for a fight. As the bigger of the two boys raises a fist, the other instinctively holds up his arms to protect his face.

The two watching teachers do not intervene to split the pair up, because the pupils are members of the school's boxing club. Both wearing bulbous red boxing gloves, they're practising a routine in which one leads with a left-hand jab, and follows it with a straight right. Opposite him, the defender holds up one glove alongside his cheek to take the blows, with the other hand hanging in front of his nose, ready to launch an attack himself.

Around the room, other pairs of pupils, including one boy-girl partnership, are performing the same routine. The wooden-floored dance studio echoes to the "thud, thud" of blows and the sound of feet shuffling. "Soften the back knees," says their PE teacher, Gareth Oliver, as he walks round, demonstrating the stance, guard and footwork that have for decades been learned by novice boxers in gyms all over the country. Until recently, this would have been a very rare scene because, for at least two decades, boxing in state schools has been virtually extinct: it was squeezed out by the potent combination of fears about safety and a widespread distaste in the education establishment for competitive sport, let alone one where competitors punch each other.

Yet the sport has survived in the wider world, and Bury itself has helped to create one of Britain's most talented boxers: Amir Khan, the WBA World light-welterweight champion, and former Olympic silver medallist, learned his skills as a teenage member of the Bury Amateur Boxing Club. Perhaps as a result of successes like his, attitudes in many schools have changed, and there has been a resurgence in the sport. The Labour Government even trumpets the fact that nearly 10 per cent of schools now offer some form of boxing, either in PE lessons or in after-school clubs.

Beneath the surface,however, there is a split among the organisers of school boxing over the kind of boxing in which teenagers should take part. The issue is whether or not the participants are allowed to land blows on each other. In the blue corner stands the Amateur Boxing Association of England (ABAE), which oversees what are called "non-contact boxing clubs" in approximately 1,300 schools. In the red corner is the Schools Amateur Boxing Association (SABA), which endorses what amounts to real boxing, in which pupils occasionally step into the ring for a one-to-one bout against an opponent, in addition to training with punch bags and skipping ropes. The latter is active in groups of schools in Manchester and Plymouth, with plans to move into schools in London and the Home Counties.

The boys and girls I'm watching today recently took part in an inter-schools championship in Bury and more inter-school events are planned for later this spring term. Mr Oliver stresses that, while punches are thrown in these contests, SABA's strict rules reduce too much aggression and avoid anyone getting badly hurt. Points are awarded, for example, for footwork as well as for landing blows; a body punch is worth twice as much as a head shot; and the referee will intervene if he feels one boxer is getting too much of an upper hand. Headguards and gumshields are worn, and the gloves are twice as big (and therefore full of air) as those used by adult professionals. "The only injury we had that day was one nose bleed," recalls Mr Oliver of the inter-schools event. "And that boy came out of the ring saying he felt on top of the world!"

Broad Oak's headteacher, Neil O'Connor, a former PE teacher himself, admits he had reservations when Mr Oliver first suggested introducing this form of boxing to school. But having seen it in action under the supervision of teachers trained by SABA, he now has no safety concerns at all. "It's well supervised and managed, and it's extremely healthy," he says. But far more important for him is the beneficial pastoral effect that joining the boxing club has had on the pupils. "When I look at this group of young people, I see their sense of worth, self-esteem and enthusiasm," he explains. "They have grown as people."

Echoing this point, Mr Oliver explains that he has deliberately targeted boys and girls who are not among the naturally athletic and talented in the school. "We use boxing as a vehicle to build up self-confidence," he says. "And it's about getting kids to appreciate the rules of boxing and realise that at the end of a competition, everyone is friends."

This point is endorsed by Lynda Jones, a counsellor seconded to the school on a Government-funded project to try to address the mental-health and emotional problems that are prevalent in many local children. She describes the calming effect that the boxing club has had on the pupils, many of whom are known to have erratic behaviour records. "Instead of blowing off and storming out of the room, they use the session to control their emotions," she says. "They're doing this as a vehicle for expressing themselves." In a break from their exertions, the teenagers express similar views themselves. "It helps to control your anger and you can stand up to being bullied," says Ashley Barlow, 15. "Before, when I got angry, I stressed at people and punched things," says Sophia Hunt, 14. "Now this helps get rid of any anger."

The rise of boxing at Broad Oak and surrounding schools has partly been because of the proximity, in the Middleton area of Manchester, of SABA's centre of excellence, located at a college of further education. One of the most passionate defenders of contact boxing is SABA's secretary Frank Collinson, a former amateur boxer with a wealth of experience as a youth coach. "We are trying to transform schools boxing," he says, "and undo a lot of the damage that was done for 20 or 30 years when people said schools boxing was a dangerous sport, which is nonsense. Our type of boxing is no more dangerous than hockey or football."

In most places, the development of real boxing in schools has followed a similar pattern: initial hesitancy on safety grounds, followed by enthusiasm after its introduction. One such convert is PE teacher Mike Carpenter who holds the same position in his group of Plymouth secondary schools as Mr Oliver holds in Bury.

"I was originally swayed by the argument that by getting into the ring, you're only one step away from brain damage," he explains. "But after I saw it, I thought this is less dangerous than contact sports like rugby and football – and I'm a rugby referee. I went to see a schools tournament and came away thinking: 'What a great event.' The boys and girls were absolutely buzzing."