At the chalkface: A father to 5,000 kids

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

My school didn’t like boxing. Most schools don’t. It supposedly encourages bad values, macho violence, street thuggery. What rubbish!

I didn’t always want to become a teacher. I really wanted to become a professional footballer, cricketer or boxer. My choice was made easier, what with being rubbish at most sports. So I settled for teaching – a life of genteel poverty and malign insult from almost all levels of society. It’s a living. My subject, English, had its drawbacks. It was all very well being an otherworldly intellectual and raving aesthete, but sometimes I wanted to teach sport. I wanted the learning to be more kinaesthetic.

Like boxing.

My school didn’t like boxing. Most schools don’t. It supposedly encourages bad values, macho violence, street thuggery. What rubbish!

Boxing is the very opposite of street fighting. It’s about sheer skill, clean living and intense discipline. Go to any boxing club and this will become apparent – the fabulous Dale Youth Club in west London, for example. Run by Mick Delaney and Gary McGuinness for 45 years in an old church hall, it was a breeding ground for Olympic and world champions, like James DeGale and George Groves.

It was also a shelter for so many of my more lost and luckless pupils, a place to go when school didn’t work for them. Children who were angry, confused, blocked and without hope. They needed to hit something. A punch bag would do it. Why don’t we have one in each classroom for teachers and pupils? I’m serious! The club became an integral part of Ladbroke Grove: “I’m a father to about 5,000 kids,” says Gary. “Parents tell me their kids come here and they change – they eat their vegetables, they sleep well, they do their homework.”

I’d sometimes visit. My more florid, undisciplined maniacs were suddenly all focus, order and intensity. Magic.

Then in late 2016 Dale Youth got some Sport England funding for a beautiful gym. In Grenfell Tower... The community will never recover from the unimaginable tragedy. But there is also invincible hope. The club somehow carried on in a cold car park.

Then, through much good will, a fantastic new boxing club has just been built. It opened last week, a buzzing hive of caring and catharsis. All god’s children will be there, pumping iron, sparring, doing those flash skip rope routines like Floyd Mayweather.

A 12-year-old boy, who lost a mate, works the punch bag. A 15-year Muslim girl, who lost friends, does the same. Look at them all! They duck and weave and feint and jab and throw fast combinations – bang bang bang!

Maybe some things will disappear, fade... Nothing quite heals trauma but this club helps. They will eat their vegetables and maybe sleep better. Dale Youth Club – a total inspiration.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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