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Ring of bright ambition

The International Boxing Academy: Seat of learning the ropes strengthens tomorrow's champions

Britain has no shortage of academies catering for the arts, from dramatic to culinary. But one purpose-built to enhance the oldest of them all, the noble art, is something of a novelty, though what is happening in the dormant coal-mining town of Peterlee, 15 miles east of Durham, is much more than that. It is a heartening example of how boxing and education can go hand in glove.

Britain has no shortage of academies catering for the arts, from dramatic to culinary. But one purpose-built to enhance the oldest of them all, the noble art, is something of a novelty, though what is happening in the dormant coal-mining town of Peterlee, 15 miles east of Durham, is much more than that. It is a heartening example of how boxing and education can go hand in glove.

Britain's first residential boxing academy for selected teenage prospects is now up and running in a remarkable establishment called East Durham and Houghall Community College, a nugget of sporting excellence in the North-east. There, six days a week, in the newly equipped gymnasium, a score of head-guarded hopefuls spar, skip and imbibe the words of the head coach Frank Collinson. Boxing, he tells them, is both an art and a science. "It's not all crash, bang, wallop, blood, sweat and snot. It's about tactics, technique, using your skills and using your brain."

At the International Boxing Academy the accent is on learning the ropes inside the ring and out. "Physical conditioning can take place in most gymnasiums," Collinson says. "But here our philosophy is to coach them not only physically but psychologically and nutritionally too."

The Oldham-born Collinson, 49, is an unlikely professor of pugilism. Eighteen years a teacher in Somerset, with a masters degree in history, the Sandhurst-trained ex-Army officer runs the academy along the lines of a boxing boot camp. Short back and sides, neatly dressed at all times, early to bed and early to rise (they run for 40 minutes at 6.30am before breakfast and a morning's gymnasium tuition), the boys who aspire to be champions in the hardest game of all quickly learn that the key to such achievement is discipline.

The best known trademark of the ring, a flattened nose, betrays the fact that Collinson has done his share of scuffling with the gloves on. An international class welterweight, he was a member of the 1972 Olympic squad so adroitly coached by the late David James, which included Alan Minter and Maurice Hope. But, as a lieutenant in the Parachute Regiment, he was drafted to Northern Ireland and was unable to make it to Munich. "Just as well because I'd have probably got my arse kicked," he says self-deprecatingly.

Collinson was selected to run the academy because of his background in teaching as well as amateur boxing. Indeed, the academy brings a whole new meaning to the fistic phrase, the educated left. Open to both male and female students - there are no women boxers at the moment but a dozen are anticipated by this time next year - the two-year course includes compulsory classroom education every afternoon as well as 15 hours a week schooling in ringcraft. Participants are studying A-levels, GNVQs and NVQs, and one of the certificates they must obtain includes dancing. Collinson insists boxers take these classes as an aid to their agility.

Among the academy's brightest prospects is 17-year-old light welterweight, Grant Brotherton, a double schoolboy champion from nearby Ashington, who is taking three A levels and hopes to go to university. But like most of his colleagues in East Durham's class of '99 he also has professional aspirations. What the academy hopes to achieve is to delay that process until they have fulfilled their potential as amateurs and are not pushed prematurely into the clutches of the pro-promoters.

At present there are 17 young boxers in residence. Three of the original 20 have dropped out either because the regime was too tough or they were homesick, but they are being immediately replaced from a long queue of applicants.

All of the boxers must have international potential. Most, like the 16-year-old Welsh twins Steffan and Rhydian Hughes, from the north Wales village of Pentrefoelas, are schoolboy or youth champions. They learned of the academy when it was mentioned during a boxing telecast on Sky. The Hughes boys have been boxing since they were eight and were encouraged to apply to the academy by their father. "My trainers in Wales taught us to scrap like professionals and have a fight," said Steffan, like his brother, a welterweight. "We always ended up sparring with bigger men. Here there are boys of our size and we are learning new techniques, like how to stand back and jab." Rhydian agrees: "We are improving our skills every day."

Both envisage a professional future. "My aim is to win a Lonsdale belt and bring it home to Wales," Rhydian says. They share a room on the main college campus in Durham, for which their father pays £20 apiece weekly. But there are subsidies and other students, such as Marius Calka, a 16-year-old refugee from Lithuania, a light welterweight who has been in Britain for 11 months, receive grants and support from their clubs for board, lodging and tuition. The course is also backed by the Further Education Funding Council.

Their skills are honed in no back-street gym. In a college which boasts some £2.5m worth of sports facilities it is probably the best equipped in the land, and cost £25,000 to set up. The Minister for Sport, Kate Hoey, confessed she was "knocked out" by the academy when she formally opened it last month. She was also deeply impressed - and no doubt astonished - that East Durham, which caters for a whole range of sports,and is soon to embrace athletics and swimming, has not received a penny in Lottery funding.

When its original application was rejected the college principal, 48-year-old Ian Prescott, obtained a bank loan - now paid off - and raised money for his ambitious sports project through sponsorship and running commercial courses in management training. "We'd sell our soul for sport," says the former professional footballer who left school without qualifications at 16, played for Bolton and Rochdale and briefly in Switzerland before obtaining a degree in engineering and a masters in education. He took over East Durham in 1994 when the college was virtually bankrupt and has turned it into a thriving educational hub with 2,500 full-time and 30,000 part-time students. "The key to the whole thing has been sport," he says. "I have always believed that, together they form a winning recipe."

Making boxing part of the academy was Prescott's brainchild. The idea had an enthusiastic response from the Amateur Boxing Association, who provide the expertise, select the students and coaches and supervise the course. "I always felt there was a need for boxing to have its own academy," Prescott says. "We need to reach those places where education has failed." Since sport became the beacon of the college's curriculum the crime rate locally has shown a significant decrease. And, says Prescott, the boxers are an exemplary breed in the way they conduct themselves. The academy's aim, clearly, is not only to turn out decent fighters, but decent young men.

And already it is getting results. Last week two students, the featherweight Stephen Walker and the light middleweight Jason Nicols, won National Association of Boys Club titles. More success seems likely, despite the inevitable expression of concern from the British Medical Association. "Do they realise they are promoting access to brain damage?" they asked when the academy was opened.

Well, what Collinson and Co are doing in Peterlee is teaching young boxers how to use their brains, in every sense. Much about the noble art has left a sour taste of late. Perhaps this academy is one way it can become the sweet science again.