The 2021/22 autumn term has seen Panathlon continue to defy the odds by giving thousands of children with disabilities and special needs precious opportunities to take part in competitive sport and physical activity. 

Widespread reports over the last two years have painted a gloomy picture of the pandemic’s disastrous impact on children’s levels of physical activity, mental health and wellbeing, with disabled people and young people with special needs being disproportionately affected. 

We’re proud and delighted to say that – through our flexibility, innovation and tenacity – Panathlon continues to buck these trends. 

Since September, 28,397 children have entered our range of programmes, which includes 10,603 participating in external face-to-face events. 

Our external events have included multi-skills days, ten-pin bowling, swimming, football, tennis, boccia, new-age kurling, dedicated indoor sessions (including rebound therapy), impairment-specific events for primary pupils and specialist events for secondary-age deaf children. 

The programmes have catered for all ages from infants through to Under-19 and have given 2,102 trained Young Leaders the opportunity to experience ‘live’ competition where they officiate and guide competitors while they take part. 

Our new ‘blended approach’ means our Virtual Panathlon programme continues alongside our external events, delivering activity within school settings either as practice for forthcoming competitions, as part of their PE lessons and/or extra-curricular clubs. 

The virtual programme continues to upskill staff, benefit other areas of the curriculum and enhance inclusion of SEND pupils in mainstream environments. Our Q&As with Panathlon ambassadors such as Tokyo Paralympic medallist Nathan Maguire and multi-discipline international para-athlete Freya Levy continue to inspire pupils and receive excellent feedback.

One of the undoubted highlights of the autumn term has been pupils returning to the swimming pool and experience the awesome London 2012 Aquatics Centre. 

Against the backdrop of school pools being drained, municipal facilities closing and swimming dropping down schools’ priority lists through the pandemic, it was especially gratifying to be able to offer pupils the chance to rediscover the thrill of travelling for an external competition, representing their school, being part of a team and simply being in the water. Some pupils had not left the school gates for a sporting competition for almost two years. 

“Students were happy to get back in the pool as previous Covid-19 measures had stopped our swimming lessons at school,” said one teacher. Another commented: “One of my pupils told me it was the best day of his life. It’s the kind of moment I wish I could bottle!” 

To complement our ‘traditional’ pre-pandemic swim gala programme, our new ‘Discovery’ gala format (based on skills challenges rather than races) was piloted in early December at the Aquatic Centre with schools from Southend. The format meets the needs of SEND children who lack skill and confidence in the water, either because their competence has lapsed during the pandemic or because they have never experienced a swimming event at all. It’s another example of Panathlon ‘bucking the trend’ by addressing the growing concerns that one million children will leave primary school by 2025 not being able to swim. 

As well as the joy of seeing a packed calendar of external Panathlon events return across the country, we were pleased to offer several ‘bespoke’ activities in partnership with Tees Valley Sport after consulting at a local level to find out what they would like to take part in. We’ve helped re-introduce Tees Valley Sport’s ‘Elements’ programme which has seen SEND pupils from the area enjoy a day at the Tees Barrage Air Trail  and an amazing 376 children take part in the partnership’s first ever ice skating event at Billingham Forum in early December. A ‘bell boating’ event is planned for the spring 

Panathlon activity has ‘exploded’ in many areas, including the north west where Bury, Tameside, Merseyside, Cheshire and Bolton have held new and ‘traditional’ style Panathlon events. Full programmes are booked in for Cumbria and Salford for early 2022. 

In North Yorkshire, where local restrictions have ruled out face-to-face events, our event manager Val French and local inclusion lead Fran Nicholl have taken Panathlon into schools, which has proved hugely popular. Elsewhere, Essex, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire have full calendars of competitions with new events for those areas scheduled for the spring term.

Some other highlights include holding a pilot day in Aberystwyth, Mid-Wales, and counties coming on board for their first ever Panathlon experiences, including Leicestershire and Somerset. Many new schools have joined this term to help create local competitions and give SEND pupils the priceless experience of representing their school in sporting competition. 

Tony Waymouth, Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, said: “It has been fantastic to see our calendar of external competitions return in earnest this term alongside our ongoing Virtual programme. We are so grateful to the partners we have in local areas for engaging with us and working together to deliver activity that complies with local restrictions and need. Hundreds of schools across the country have either returned to us or have become new members of the ‘Panathlon family’. 

“In 2022, we are looking forward to escalating our provision even further. By innovating, expanding and diversifying our offer, we will continue to defy the virus and buck the downward trend in participation and activity for children with disabilities and special needs. 

“We thank all those who have supported our determination to provide access to sporting provision, especially our sponsors, School Games organisers, head teachers, SENCOs and parents.”