Boxing academy gives excluded pupils a chance to channel their anger

 

Terry had been excluded from two mainstream schools by the age of 11. He had even been forced to leave two units for excluded youngsters after bringing a knife on to the premises. His last chance was the Boxing Academy – an innovative project for young people in Hackney and Haringey, north London – which has already secured the attention of Government advisers as they strive to offer a better chance of permanent education for youngsters who would otherwise be prey to gang culture on the streets.

At first, the academy insisted on searching Terry to make sure he had no weapons on him while he was at the academy. Gradually, he settled in and is now seen by staff as a pupil with a much brighter future, capable of getting an A* in his maths GCSE, which could be the gateway to a college place or apprenticeship.

The Boxing Academy, which has two sites – one in each of the boroughs, offers full-time places to about 40 pupils. The schools it works with make assessments of those young people who will not cope in a mainstream school environment and pay the academy, which is run by a charity, to take them on board.

It is the pioneer for an experiment launched this September whereby a number of schools throughout the country have taken responsibility for providing education for the pupils they have excluded.

Terry says of the Academy: "I got kicked out of my last school. I really wanted to come here, though, I heard about it in June. I used to have an anger problem and I don't think I would have got on in a mainstream school."

At the Boxing Academy, if one of the pupils is in danger of losing control, they can be sent to the gym where they can spar or work out on the equipment and get rid of their aggression in a more constructive way. Discipline is strict. If anyone is late for school they can be made to do 100 sit-ups as a punishment. The teenagers – all those at the academy are in their last three years of compulsory schooling – do not seem to question the discipline. Some appear to respect it as something that was missing from their earlier lives at school.

Hassan, another 15-year-old at the Academy,says: "I used to get distracted at mainstream school. I started fights and got into trouble. Here, if you do something, you can't get away with it. It is highly disciplined but at the same time the teachers make it fun to learn. What I would do in a mainstream school is fight, but here, there is no need to fight because they are your friends. You can go down to the gym and do some sparring if you're angry. In mainstream school I wouldn't get as much attention as I get here. You get more support but you also get more work to do."

A typical week at the school will include boxing sessions as well as maths, English and ICT, with most of the pupils studying for GCSEs. Citizenship has just been added to the curriculum.

The pupils are divided into pods of six each. Their "pod" leader (or teacher) stays with them for the three years they are at the school. The relationship is more that that of a teacher and a pupil. The staff are all trained youth workers and if a pupil does not turn up they will go round to their home and drag them out of bed if necessary.

Kiros Hetep, one of the "pod" leaders, says: "It is not just exclusively boys here. There are a couple of girls, too." Hetep, who had been involved with boxing for several years before taking up his post with the academy. was doing a telesales job when he heard about the job at the Academy. "It was repetitive - saying the same thing time and again day after day," he says, "but here you are involved with helping these kids succeed in life. We do the boxing because we can channel the aggression they have. We're not going to give up on them. They know that and we have a good rapport. They just cannot be in a class where there are 30 kids. They need a bit more attention that than that and we can provide more advice to them than a mainstream school."

At the helm is head teacher Anna Cain, whose involvement with the academy stems from when her own son was excluded from school. As a result of the time she had to spend fighting her son's corner, she lost her own full-time job as a researcher. However, she believes that often it is not the answer to get a pupil reinstated into their mainstream school. "You are just getting them put back into an environment where they have failed," she says.

Many parents too, would not have the understanding to find their way round the appeals system, which can take weeks to be resolved. "Those are weeks when they are kicking their heels at home," she says. They will be out on the streets where they could fall prey to drugs or gang culture.

She is not qualified as a teacher but says: "My experience as a mother whose son was excluded is probably better training for what I do now. For some of the kids here, this will be the first time they've ever had a positive male role model in their lives, a role model who will get them in on time and push them out of bed if they need to. These are kids, some of whom would have thought nothing about throwing furniture across the room or swearing at a teacher."

However, many are shocked when they are finally excluded from school, "Even the toughest youngsters are devastated," she says. "They never thought it would happen to them. As soon as they arrive here, though, it all stops. They behave and I am sure it is because they know they can't get away with it. We talk to them here more on a level that they understand. They are used to getting their own way, but discipline is strict here. I can't imagine how mainstream schools cope and I can absolutely understand how they want these youngsters out."

Anna has always been a boxing fan. Indeed, it was boxing that helped turn around her own son's life as he joined the Academy after his exclusion. "It wasn't news for me that it was a tool for disaffected young people," she says. She is well aware of the pressure and influences that her charges face in the world outside the school. "Some of these kids are involved with people who are involved in very nasty things," she says.

The teachers at the school are trained in restraint techniques, but often the answer to any show of aggression is just to go downstairs and "punch the bag".

Anna Cain is quite critical of the provision set aside for excluded youngsters – a feeling that would be shared in ministerial circles, which is why Charlie Taylor, the Government's senior adviser on discipline, has visited the Academy. Too often, she argues, provision consists of time spent in a pupil referral unit, where many of the youngsters fail to attend. In those cases, they are likely to fall prey to those "nasty things" that happen in the streets.

Providing them with a full-time alternative to mainstream schooling can work, though. Of the pupils that left the Boxing Academy this summer, all but one have go on to study at a further education college and the one has taken up an apprenticeship. It is not a bad record at a time of record levels of youth unemployment when you consider the Academy serves one of the most deprived areas of the country.

Taylor is impressed by what he has seen. "The Boxing Academy is turning around the lives of children with serious behaviour problems, who have often been excluded from mainstream education," he says. "They have mixed the discipline and culture of boxing with a rigorous approach to learning and made it a highly successful school. I'm impressed by the work they do and the results they get – every one of their students this year is now in college building on the skills they will need for later life. I'm keen that other schools in similar challenging areas can learn from the principles that the Academy instil."

Many of the youngsters come back to the Academy after leaving. "They say: 'College is really hard – I can't believe how awful I was while I was here because all you did was try and help me'," Anna says.

"Most of them were really difficult when they came here. It's not a job for the faint-hearted. They learn to deal with any anger or emotions they have in a constructive way. You have to be extremely careful with some of the kids. They are the ones that most people don't want. We don't exclude them from the Boxing Academy. We don't give up on them."

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