Boxercise classes and boxing clubs in schools can be used to improve fitness and behavior, as well as tackle bullying and racism says Rob Bowden

Boxing in schools hit the headlines in 2007 with its reintroduction to a group of schools in the London borough of Bromley. Once again the subject has raised much debate, with the qualities of self discipline and fitness weighed against the image of an inherently violent sport with the potential to cause harm to another student.

One school that has appeared to get the best of both worlds is  Wilmslow High School, Cheshire, which has adopted boxing fitness classes into its extra-curricular program and, when applicable, its curriculum. The classes have run for over four years and have pioneered the way for other boxing-led initiatives in schools. The program is known as ‘JABS’ and is a cooperative venture between the school and Crewe Amateur Boxing Club.

JABS is the brainchild of ex-British light-welterweight champion Joey Singleton and the acronym JABS is short for ‘Joey’s Anti-Bulllying Scheme’. English teacher Tim Fredericks is an ABAE coach and trains both students at Wilmslow and boxers at Crewe ABC. Mr Fredericks has run the club for nearly four years, coinciding with the school gaining sports college status. The club runs as a breakfast club before school starts.

Mr Fredericks explained how the club is run: “Each day students run through a set warm-up, then through a boxing fitness program of skipping, bag work, sessions on the focus pads – everything but sparring.”

The club has thrived, with several students joining gyms outside of school, and the program is strongly linked with the school’s anti-bullying procedures. All students who attend JABS classes are expected to actively tackle bullying by the example they set. The Wilmslow program encourages students to be respectful of other people and demanding of themselves. The impact of this element of the behavioral requirement has been seen countywide, with presentations made by Wilmslow High School JABS students at the Cheshire schools Anti-Bullying Conference.

Many of the principles involved in the JABS program mirror the ethos of the multitude of well run boxing gyms around the country. It is these principles that are often missed by critics who tend to concentrate on the more negative aspects of the sport. Indeed, if one delves beneath the headlines, the schools in Bromley have done something similar to Wilmslow, with the sport being introduced through the skills and training required rather than any fighting.

One of the schools in Bromley spoke to the BBC about their reintroduction of boxing, earlier this year. The headteacher of Orpington’s Priory School, Nicholas Ware, said: “With all the right safety equipment and close supervision from the Amateur Boxing Association, those who have been through this year’s initial training are now engaged in sparring.” He added that only pupils who had opted to take part were involved and that it was certainly not compulsory.

This last comment is perhaps the most significant. Schools are continually fighting the battle to combat obesity and lethargy in many of their students. Boxing would not be a popular choice for many youngsters already disengaged with sport but the skills of boxing taught in a professional manner seem a very popular alternative. The old image of two boys being forced into combat in an old school gym is an image that the sport is still trying to shake off in schools.

Times are changing though, as more schools look to use boxing in a positive manner.

Burnage High, in Manchester, has transformed a dishevelled old gym into a state-of-the-art boxing gymnasium and a boxing club is now run from out of the school. The club is run by Tariq Iqbal, a former Burnage pupil, who calls the club ‘Burnage Against Discrimination’ and is working with lots of local agencies, not just the school, to promote social inclusion through the boxing club. Mr Iqbal is employed at the school as a learning mentor and is aiming to use the new facility to get more students fit and sports-orientated.

If projects such as this prove successful, then it may just be that boxing and its values will gain a foothold in British schools again.

Rob Bowden is a teacher at Wilmslow High School