The Youth Sport Trust’s Inclusion Lead in Essex has heaped praise on the impact of Virtual Panathlon on disabled and SEN children during the pandemic – and is now focused on working with us to expand provision throughout the county as we emerge from lockdown. 

Gill Newlyn, who also works with the Active Essex inclusion team and for the West Essex School Sports Partnership, said Panathlon’s support for schools in providing inclusive sport and physical activity during a very turbulent time has been “absolutely fabulous”. 

Our Virtual Panathlon programme enabled teachers to use our activity packs and instruction videos to engage special needs pupils who remained in school as the children of key workers or who were classed as vulnerable. At the same time, the packs were accessible for pupils who remained at home. 

Speaking to our podcast, Panathlon People, Gill said: “After the first lockdown, very soon we saw how Panathlon rose to the challenge. I was absolutely amazed by the number of resources they sent out for us to distribute to schools and home to parents to really engage children who were missing out at that stage. I was so impressed by how Panathlon suddenly pulled out all the stops to offer support. 

“It enabled teachers to just deliver from the Panathlon ‘package’ at school – and sending the resources home meant those children could do things with family members using sports equipment but also tin cans, jars or toilet rolls. When we saw them do that, it was just fantastic. 

“It was a difficult time for schools – we were bombarded. But Panathlon was so clear, so precise and easy to follow, and their reaction was just amazing. I got some fantastic feedback from schools who were soon asking for more. 

“There’s a danger when sending activities home for them not to be differentiated. This was fabulous because the pictures, demonstrations and videos were so clear that every child could take part, no matter what their ability.” 

Gill feels Panathlon also developed the skillsets of staff, for whom the instructions and videos were “like a form of CPD [Continuous Professional Development].” Some mainstream schools included the Virtual Panathlon activities as part of a sensory ‘gym trail’ for their SEN pupils.  

Many schools have commented that pupils have thrived through being able to compete in sporting competition that takes place internally. Holding in-school Panathlon competitions ensures minimal change to children’s routine – something which discomforts many SEN pupils – and takes place in a familiar environment. It has certainly given Panathlon food for thought with regards to how we structure competitions post-Covid. 

Through the second wave of stricter lockdown restrictions, Gill and Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, continued planning how to engage schools in the summer term and beyond, particularly those who hadn’t experienced Panathlon and its ethos before. 

New events are already on the calendar for disabled and SEN pupils in Essex, such as our new Panathlon cricket programme in late summer. 

In the medium to long term, the goal is to have all 14 areas of Essex taking part in Panathlon activity, with targeted areas such as West Essex being initial development hotspots. 

Gill says: “A lot of the children I work with get very few opportunities to represent their school. Just being in a Panathlon team fulfils one of their dreams. Showing off a medal and a certificate in assembly is everything to them. To be part of a group who are recognised as a school team is wonderful.” 

Tony added: “Our programme in Essex attracted over 1,000 SEND children to our strong calendar of activity pre-Covid, but the pandemic has really allowed Gill and myself to drive development through our virtual programme, school visits, awareness days and athlete Q and A’s. Wonderful opportunities now await schools joining Panathlon activity in Essex such as potential visits to the Olympic Park and local pathway events. 

“The feedback from new schools engaged over the pandemic shows that they are hooked on the Panathlon ethos and can’t wait to be part of external opportunities which others have already embedded in their school calendars and school environments. 

Panathlon would like to thank Jack Petchey Foundation and Active Essex for their continued support, and thanks also to Lewis Communications for supporting the development of work in West Essex.