Credit: Jacob Mignano
Boxing has a long-established history of turning troubled youngsters into well-rounded champions, teaching them discipline and showing them how to channel their anger and disaffection into something positive.
The Boxing Academy in Hackney is continuing that tradition, providing children between the ages of 13 and 16 who faced exclusion in the mainstream school system with a chance to turn their lives around. Pupils follow a full-time school schedule in small classes, with a boxing mentor supporting them on a daily basis.
“In mainstream school I liked to show off, be rude and be the centre of attention,” says Tatum, who’s now been at the academy for a year. “I could never go through a whole class without getting in trouble. I was scared to be myself and scared of what people thought of me.”
The 14-year-old is measured and considered in her responses, displaying the discipline and confidence she’s gained through boxing. “I’ve learned a lot more things here than I have in mainstream school. I concentrate more, I learn more and I’m able to do more things that I couldn’t do before.”
Teaching life lessons
As Anna Cain, head of the academy, tells me, “a big part of what we’re doing is helping them change the way they think about stuff, not just in lessons but life in general”.
It’s why Tatum is now harbouring hopes of teaching business abroad one day, and she’s not the only student with new dreams. 90 per cent of those who leave the academy are in college or employment, something that would have been unthinkable before they left a mainstream education system that threatened to leave them behind.
But it’s not as though their original schools gave up on them, passing the buck on to the academy. The institutions referred these children, and even pay part of their fees. Children stay enrolled at the partner school, which gets regular feedback and input. “The schools work with us closely,” says Ms Cain. “I think it’s fair to say they are the ones that really care about what happens to these kids.”
It’s a unique and innovative way of educating children, but one that couldn’t be achieved without fundraising. Last weekend Sport Relief raised over £53 million for various causes, one of which is supporting the academy.
“They really understand the value of projects that don’t necessarily work with large numbers of people,” says Ms Cain. “Their intervention in 2010 was timely; we probably wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for funders like them.”
As it stands, the academy has 35 students. Ms Cain feels it could be expanded, but is also wary of compromising the service they are currently providing.
The focused nature of classes, both in the ring and the classroom, have certainly helped students such as 16-year-old Ceejay.
“In boxing you know when and when not to fight, and because we’re learning here, in lessons you’ll know when to react and when not to,” he says, admitting he was easily distracted at his old school.
The Academy has helped Ceejay achieve higher grades than he had ever anticipated – “I got predicted a C in maths, which I never got predicted before,” he tells me proudly – allowing him to dream of studying business at college, and maybe one day of going to university.
Education is a multi-faceted process at the academy, with students learning both physical and mental control during their one boxing lesson a day.
“It’s really just the exercise, and conflict resolution, and expending all those hormones and that negativity that teenagers have,” Ms Cain explains.
Each attendee also has a mentor, who provides a consistent adult presence for children who are often used to instability. And, as Ms Cain says, “They’re not used to people who are on their level, which boxers generally are.”
Jermaine Williams, the academy’s 24-year-old behaviour manager and mentor, relates to the students better than most. After coming over to the UK as a 13-year-old, he repeatedly found himself in trouble, spending time in police cells and even in prison. Boxing offered him a way out.
“It pretty much changed my life,” he says. “It gave me something to aim towards, a sense of achievement.”
“When I was incarcerated I was nearly choked to death. When I got released I thought ‘I need to learn some sort of self-defence, so I can defend myself if I ever was to go back to prison’. Once I got to the boxing gym and started sparring with my coach, something came over me. It made me really humble; it gave me a way to channel my aggression.”
Mr Williams’ story shows what can happen when underprivileged teens are given a second chance. And the tragic events of last weekend, when 15-year-old Shereka Marsh was shot dead in Hackney Wick, highlights the importance of providing a safe environment for troubled children.
Ms Cain agrees. “That is a perfect example of the sorts of chaotic, troubled lives these children lead. You don’t have to be a young person who’s behaving badly to get caught in the crossfire.
“Everyone who comes to this school has to take a roundabout route from where they live, because they have to worry about which roads they cross and whether they’ve veered out of a postcode. A big part of what we do is trying to help them cope with that.”
Mr Williams chimes in. “Being here for four years, you see a lot of students come and go. While they’re here they kick up so much fuss. Some of the kids who pass through here come back and say ‘thank you for all the work that you’ve done with me, I didn’t see it at the time but now I understand.’
“It gives me that encouragement, that motivation to keep doing what I do. The results speak for themselves.”