Paul Brand breaks the first rule of Fight Club by promoting it as a means for helping teens to channel their aggression.
I am not a violent person. I’ve never hit anyone in my life. Although I have occasionally fought the urge to do so. There have been numerous contenders for the title ‘Most Deserving of a Slap’, mostly from my own schooldays – by which I mean the ages of 11-16, though for some grown-ups the impulse to strike a child has been known to develop only once they’ve entered the teaching profession! My heavyweight champion pain in the backside was actually an antagonistic best friend (teenage relationships are knotty, aren’t they?!) but I never caved in to the desire to ram his head into a locker, unlike the mutual friend who went on to be best man at my wedding. Heads of year will corroborate that Y9 is probably the apotheosis of needling and skirmishes and I still vividly recall my 14-year-old self being pushed to the limit almost daily to maintain focus on work and avoid confrontation. And to what do I credit these Herculean levels of self-restraint? Boxing.
I know first-hand the benefits of being able to take out your frustrations on a punching bag. My Dad grew up on the type of south London estate where knives have tragically replaced fists as the weapon of choice. Post-war social mobility meant that he was able to bring up his own children in a leafy London suburb but he still schooled me in the art of boxing that served him and his friends so well. The garage in which the punching bag hung would often be my first port of call on getting home from school. Half an hour would be spent pummelling the heavy sack of miscellaneous material; I openly confess to pretending it was my prime antagonist’s head, living out in my own head the fanciful vision of his brutal comeuppance. Violent computer games – regularly cited as a disturbing outlet for testosterone-filled fantasies – already existed by this time but they didn’t offer the same physical satisfaction of working up a sweat. Crucially, I could sweat out the aggravations of the day just gone and begin the next day afresh.
For whatever reason, some children lack the mental fortitude to go a whole day without hitting someone or something. They are overwhelmed by their primal scream. Mainstream education can’t cope with them. Yet in Hackney, the Boxing Academy is demonstrating a different approach. Beginning life as a traditional boxing gym, it has transferred its ethos of discipline and hard work to the world of education with startling results. Around the core lessons of English, Maths and Science, mentors work with students on their boxing and life skills. My description of pummelling the bag might have made boxing sound mindlessly pugnacious, and certainly, the professional sport has to battle a bloody stereotype, but amateur boxing is rigorously governed, with a strong emphasis on confidence, concentration and control. The pugilistic chessboard, on which competitors must quickly yet carefully assess their next move lest a knockout blow is landed on them, trains children to be better in the classroom, on the streets and in employment scenarios, safe in the knowledge that they are capable of handling themselves. And these skills are equally as applicable to girls as they are boys. Women’s boxing wasn’t officially sanctioned until 1997 but since being introduced to the Olympic Games in 2012 it has become one of the fastest-growing participation sports, aided and abetted by celebrity advocates such as singer Ellie Goulding and model Gigi Hadid.
Multiple learning trusts are already seeking to mimic the Boxing Academy’s alternative education provision. And while encouraging children to punch one another might seem like the ultimate teaching transgression, consider some of your most difficult pupils and the likelihood that they would benefit from a lunchtime or after school ‘fight club’ under the jurisdiction of PE staff or any other qualified adult, as opposed to picking their own battles in the playground.
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