Knockout success: Boxing is helping students’ academic achievement

Champion Jermaine Williams (centre) with Hackney Boxing Academy students Chandler and Dylan. Photo: Aendrew Rininsland

Images of Rocky and inspirational quotes adorn the walls, upbeat hip-hop music is booming through the speakers and half a dozen teenagers groan as they lift weights and sweat furiously on treadmills.

In a room across the hall, the atmosphere is very different. Teens sit studiously examining textbooks in a small and tranquil classroom as a teacher writes out equations on the whiteboard.

This is the scene at Hackney Boxing Academy, an award-winning charity with the mission of changing the lives of young people in danger of educational exclusion.

Founded in 2010, Hackney Boxing Academy provides an alternative to mainstream schooling.

It combines basic education and mentoring with the discipline and culture of boxing to re-engage the most difficult-to-reach young people who are funded by their local schools and supported by a host of sponsors including Comic Relief and Playsport London.

“Although the name itself makes people think there is a draconian atmosphere, we are a real family. The entire purpose is to take young people who are at risk of permanent exclusion at school and help them shape their futures,” says Anna Cain, 41, head of the Academy.

Ms Cain’s interest in the Academy was sparked when her son was referred to the original Tottenham Boxing Academy. He was one of the first students admitted after he suffered exclusion at school; he is now part of a legacy of over 150 students who are turning their lives around.

“The education we provide is the key and boxing is the tool. It teaches students life tactics, it has an ethos of control and discipline. Like in life, you don’t step into the ring without a plan.”

The Academy runs like a mainstream school with daily classes between 9.30am and 2.45pm. Classes are small with as few as six pupils in each.

Chandler Hughes, a 16-year-old student who has been with the Academy for two years, says: “I didn’t enjoy school, it wasn’t interesting and the teacher never had time for me but here the classes are small so we get loads of work done.”

Chandler has high hopes of becoming an electrician or a plumber and is excited about the work experience placements that the Academy has set up for him.

With academic and vocational courses on offer and more than 90 per cent of students graduating onto further education, training or employment, the Academy has proven to be a resounding success.

“Some of the kids are on track for As. We’ve got their progress in mind and we encourage them to think about their future and realise that the things they do today will affect them tomorrow,” says Ms Cain.

Each class has its own boxer and class mentor who maintains order and takes on a pastoral role. Deputy head Alejandro Reyes, 24, acts as a mentor.

“The kids are all characters and it’s so nice to see them walk away happier and more learned. I won’t be moving from here for a long time” he says.

Alejandro encouraged his friend and current Amateur Boxing Association champion Jermaine Williams to apply for a job at the Academy.

“At first I just thought: ‘no, I’m not really interested in that sort of thing’ but now I love mentoring the kids and helping them stay out of crime. If they are rude or indulge in crime we teach them that it’s wrong and nine out of 10 times it works. They aren’t bad kids, they are just misunderstood,” he says.

Ms Cain believes that the mentor role is fundamental to the student’s development. “For the first time, the students have a proper male role model. They have a love-hate relationship; mentors make no exceptions for them but at the same time they are the first to compliment them if they do well.

“Every day they’ll come in and their 50 push-ups are waiting for them,” she laughs.

Successes aside, money is tight for the Academy. “It’s a difficult time to be a charity. We have never received statutory funding and that’s why partnerships like Comic Relief are so valuable,” says Ms Cain.

Staff will be running the Comic Relief mile to raise funds for the school.

“We’ll get there,” she says, “but probably quite slowly!”