Ring Leaders

The London Boxing Academy Community Project provided an opportunity for expelled teens to escape the cycle of benefit culture and gang life — its innovation should be celebrated

On October 12 the funeral of Kemar Duhaney, a 21-year-old from north London, was held at Islington Crematorium. At 11.47am on July 11 he had been stabbed in the chest outside his girlfriend’s house in Hackney Wick. Paramedics performed open-heart surgery at the scene but couldn’t save him. He died the same day.

If this sounds like a tragically familiar tale, Kemar’s story, and the circumstances of his funeral, are not.

Kemar lived with his grandmother in Jamaica until he was 12. He moved to the UK when his mother, working seven days a week as a hairdresser in London, had saved enough money to accommodate him. A disruptive student with what he called an “anger problem”, Kemar was eventually excluded from school. In 2006 he wound up at an alternative provision project, often the last stop for expelled teens: the London Boxing Academy Community Project.

The LBACP dealt with young people—usually boys—who had “emotional and behavioural difficulties”. It was run at that time by Chris Hall, a former champion amateur boxer and boxing coach for 30 years. The project was housed in the same building as Hall’s boxing gym, and some of his boxers worked as “pod leaders” to the students—acting as both teaching assistants and mentors. A teacher at the project, Tom Ogg, has just published his account of his two years at the LBACP, Boxing Clever (Civitas, £9.50). It is a vivid and moving portrait of South Tottenham and this very special school.

The distinction between alternative provision projects and pupil referral units is that the former are free from state control, are not inspected by Ofsted and do not have to follow the national curriculum. They can therefore experiment and innovate. Ogg describes the emphasis that Hall placed on building relationships; for the teachers it was as important to provide the students with pastoral care as it was to teach them how to read. The aim was  to escape what Hall called the “blinkin’ ridiculous” state welfare benefit culture, and to provide young men with positive male role models. In his foreword, the “Blue Labour” peer Lord Glasman calls Boxing Clever a story about an institution “with a strong sense of moral purpose . . . upholding good practice and a sense of virtue in an ecology of broken relationships”.

Some of the practices the school used to maintain positive behaviour might jar liberal sensibilities—incentives included cash handouts, and one student dispute was settled in the ring—but Ogg told me that these unorthodox methods were necessary: “I think it was essential that we had the freedom to innovate. People now recognise—even in government—that alternative provision schools need to be just that: alternative.”

And the LBACP was a success. Its record at GCSE and BTec, although unimpressive by the standards of a mainstream school, meant that some of its graduates were able to enrol in college or find jobs. In 2009 the police told Ogg that the LBACP’s students had much lower rates of offending than equivalent students who had been excluded. But more important are the unquantifiable benefits: the effect the selfless father-figure of Chris Hall had on his pupils; the moral code instilled in the students by their boxer pod leaders (all carefully chosen family men); the “spirit of cultivating positive, realistic dreams”, as Ogg puts it.

Kemar signed up for extra English lessons with Ogg at the LBACP because, despite his excellent attendance, he was falling behind. When Ogg left, he and Robert Whelan from the think-tank Civitas (which supported the school financially) offered to give Kemar private tuition. Kemar would travel to Civitas’s Westminster office for lessons. But his reading didn’t improve. Civitas sent him to an assessor, who confirmed that he was severely dyslexic. Ogg continued to help Kemar practise his reading until, with the aid of Civitas’s dyslexia fund, he could enrol in college. His only problem was that he couldn’t escape his area or his old friends—and enemies. His inability to flee gang culture would prove fatal.

At Kemar’s funeral Ogg gave the eulogy, calling his former student someone who loved to learn and who was “genuinely good”.  Ogg had raised funds for the funeral because Kemar’s family couldn’t afford to pay for it. The LBACP and men like Ogg and Hall couldn’t save Kemar, but they gave him hope and direction, as they have done with many others. Boxing Clever is a testament to their refusal to give up on young men like Kemar Duhaney.

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