Six-year-old Grayson Winter revelled in his first ever sporting competition as he joined over 200 pupils with disabilities and special needs in a star-studded, two-day competitive extravaganza in Calderdale.

Grayson was part of the team from Dean Field Primary in Halifax who finished in bronze medal position at the Panathlon primary event on the morning of 5 March at Calderdale College. “The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is show my medal to my mummy! I have enjoyed it 100 out of 10!” he beamed.

>> See all the pictures from the Calderdale event here <<

Giving children like Grayson their first ever taste of sporting competition and that treasured feeling of representing his school is a huge part of what makes the Panathlon charity’s work so vital.

Lauren Jagger, Year 4 teacher and PE Lead at Dean Field, said: “For children like Grayson who might not be able to take part in other sporting competitions, this is really, really important. The activities are adapted perfectly so he can not just join in, but be a key part of our team in a proper sporting competition. He looks around and sees other children who are just like him.

“The minute Panathlon was suggested to us, we knew we had to do it. Our team know that wherever they finished it was going to be an amazing experience, but the element of competition gets them to strive that bit further. This is not a chance our pupils would have had otherwise, and they have absolutely loved it.”

In the four events over two days, 216 SEND pupils took part from 30 schools from the local area – with the second day lit up by a guest appearance from TV star and Panathlon Ambassador Alex Brooker! The positive impacts were recognised and highlighted by school staff.

Cornholme Junior School from Todmorden were crowned Calderdale Primary gold medallists. Their SENCO/Year 1 teacher Lucy Trafford said: “There’s nothing here they can’t access – they can achieve it all. Usually, children who are more naturally suited to sporting performance tend to take control in school, but here it’s not like that. It’s these pupils’ chance to shine and they’ve grabbed it.”

Support Assistant Rosa Calcott from Ripponden Primary stressed the difficulties that SEND pupils have in mainstream sporting environments – barriers that are removed at Panathlon. “People don’t understand how socially awkward it is for children to be involved in mainstream sports if they have a disability or additional needs – it makes them different and it’s so hard to feel included,” she said.

“But in this setting everybody is equal. Panathlon builds up so much confidence in them. The teamwork helps build friendships and break down barriers. It gives them a real purpose. It’s wonderful.”

Trinity Academy Grammar were winners of our afternoon Xtend (secondary) competition. Their teacher India Midgley also highlighted the platform that Panathlon gives SEND pupils to excel.

“It’s so lovely to see these students thrive in an environment away from a mainstream setting,” she said. “The team spirit boosts their mental health and it has a massive impact socially, building those friendships and also their confidence to contribute back in the classroom.

“It is unfortunately rare for these students to come out and participate in sporting activities, but it’s so lovely for them to feel accepted and get a sense of belonging where everybody is the same.”

‘Life lessons’ learned on the field of play are a big part of Panathlon’s positive impact – as evidenced by Laura Hutton, Assistant Head at Warley Road Academy.

“Panathlon is massive for us – one of the main reasons why we do it is because we feel it reflects back in the classroom,” said Miss Hutton. “Sport is critical for building our children’s resilience. They tend to give up quite easily, but this is crucial for learning to accept that it’s OK not to win, to keep trying and you’ll get there eventually. Here, they feel so special with the t-shirts, medals and trophies that they can show off to everybody else at school.”

Paul Kelesidis, Head Teacher at Bolton Brow School in Sowerby Bridge, said: “Pupils are out of their comfort zone here which is a massive step for them. Handling the nerves and thriving here might be the spark that leads them on to athletics, netball or football clubs in or outside of school. It’s priceless.”

Staff at Ryburn Valley High School have started incorporating Panathlon activities in PE to prepare SEND pupils for our external competitions. “It really gives purpose and meaning to our lessons,” said PE teacher Hannah Holroyd-Smith. “It has a massive impact – and the great looking trophies mean they earn the same status that mainstream pupils get for their achievements in football, rugby or hockey.”

Young Leaders, who guided the competitors and officiated the competition, were from Calderdale College and Brooksbank College. Callum McNulty, School Games Organiser for Calderdale, said: “The Young Leaders have been brilliantly adaptable in making sure every student is able to complete every activity to their own level of ability. The leaders may not have day-to-day contact with SEN students, but their guidance has helped give these children what might be the highlight of their year.”