With the UEFA Women’s Euros upon us, Panathlon is giving hundreds of girls with disabilities and special needs a platform to discover the game. 

Our girls’ football programme has expanded hugely in the 2021/22 academic year with girls-only, SEND-specific coaching sessions and competitions taking place all over the country including London, Essex, Kent, Surrey, Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Merseyside and Yorkshire. We’ve had over 600 girls take part, guided and officiated by over 100 Young Leaders.

Our programme is inclusive for girls with learning difficulties and physical disabilities of all types and is suitable for first-time players and more experienced players alike. 

Marjorie McClure School in south east London have taken part in Panathlon’s girls’ football programme for the last five years. A session held on site this term attracted 70 girls from Marjorie McClure and nearby schools. 

The programme has built confidence and competence within Marjorie McClure’s female pupils with SEND to such an extent that they now take part in a lunchtime football club and play in the South London Special League. 

“They have found their voice,” said Sandra Bartley a FE teacher at Marjorie McClure. “Panathlon’s girls’ football programme has been a massive plus for the students and us as a PE department. 

“It has given a particular group of students who normally would not have taken part a great insight into being able to play football. It’s a day where they feel they can just play without any inhibition. No matter what your ability, everyone can take part. Everyone feels valued and equal.” 

The programme’s structure is teaching fundamental technical skills in the morning through fun drills led by the Young Leaders, then after lunch there is a competition between schools. 

“It’s individually driven so everyone is given an opportunity to try it out whatever their ability level,” says Panathlon football coach Emma O’Connor. 

“There aren’t many opportunities for girls with disabilities to engage in football so this is a perfect environment to take those first steps with no pressure or expectations, just fun. They can learn skills, taste a little bit of competition and build friendships and connections.” 

Schools have who taken part attribute the programme’s success to a number of factors, including the fact that it offers a safe space to try the game in an all-girls setting. 

“If boys were here they would definitely take over the event so I think it’s important that it is just girls,” said Dawn Wood, Links SSP School Sports Coordinator in Sheffield. 

“In this environment, girls are far less frightened of making a mistake and the session isn’t dominated by their male peers, as tends to happen in school. When they arrived this morning, the girls were really quiet, but now they’re chatting away to each other, having fun and have really grown in confidence.” 

Panathlon Event Manager James Tinney, who has coordinated many of our girls’ football sessions in the south east, agrees. 

“The girls are more relaxed so the events are both sociable and competitive. The Young Leaders become so much more important in this context because they ‘buddy up’ with each small group for the whole day and forge relationships. There is a lovely atmosphere for them to learn in.” 

As England prepares to host this summer’s UEFA Women’s Euros, the buzz around football for women and girls will inevitably grow and inspire more females to try out the game. Who knows, a future Lionesses star such as Lucy Bronze or Millie Bright could come from Panathlon’s sessions? 

Year 7 pupil Isla from Alexandra Park School in North London took part in one of our recent events. She said: “I really enjoyed the fun football challenges, because everyone got a go and the leaders were really encouraging. I got to meet new people and we finished the day by playing against the leaders and getting medals.” 

Nigel Hartley, PE Lead and Year 5/6 teacher at Wharncliffe Side School in Sheffield, said: “This event gives girls who don’t think of football as being for them the chance to have a go at it. We want pupils to have the confidence to express themselves and try new things. They just need that opportunity and this event gives them that. I can see how their confidence has grown from the first activity to the last.” 

Gareth Hunt, ARB Teacher at Saltash Community School in Cornwall, added: “The programme was highly inclusive and ideally suited to our students, who can struggle with competitive sports due to their wide range of needs. Students who often lack confidence in other contexts felt able to participate and succeed in the activities. 

I am unaware of any other provision for girls’ football for SEND children in our area so Panathlon’s events and activities are an important part of what we’re able to provide in our school. 

“A highlight of the event was the encouraging and positive atmosphere that was fostered by the event co-ordinator [Chris Sugden] and the Young Leaders who ran it. The positivity modelled by the leaders was then reflected by the students when they played matches against each other.” 

Sarah Williams, Surrey’s Active Schools Manager, said: “Thank you for taking the time to come to Surrey and inspire a group of girls to get involved in football. The coaches were in equal parts motivating and engaging and it was lovely to hear how you spoke to the girls in different ways to reflect their needs. It is really appreciated and lovely to continue our work with Panathlon.”

The programme is equally beneficial for the Young Leaders who officiate and guide the girls during the sessions (whose training in the London and Essex are is funded by Jack Petchey Foundation).  

“The Panathlon football event allowed our year 10 PE students to experience something they never would have experienced otherwise.” said Kerri Nicolaou, PE teacher at the Compton School in Finchley, North London. 

“I noticed such a development in them from the start of the session compared to the end of the day and it was great to see some of our more challenging students really benefitting from their time as a leader too. They all came away buzzing and wanting to go into something similar when they are older. It has definitely helped the students to mature and grow in confidence.”