Pupils with disabilities and special needs from across Merseyside relished competing in a host of sports as Panathlon offered them the opportunity to start the new term with a bang. 

The Merseyside Schools ‘Welcome Back’ Disability Sport Festival on Wednesday (September 28) brought together over 100 children from 10 schools, many of whom had not left the school gates for a sporting fixture since before the pandemic and were still operating in ‘bubbles’ within school until the end of last term. 

Pupils took part in football, wheelchair basketball, basketball, polybat, boccia and outdoor athletics at Wavertree Sports Centre in what was a ‘taster’ day ahead of the packed programme of Panathlon competitions in the north west in the coming school year. 

See a full gallery of pics from the Welcome Back Festival here.

“This is bringing them out of their shells because they are lacking confidence and need to get back to normality,” said Emma Fleming, sports coordinator at Merefield School in Southport. 

“We held sporting events within school but getting the chance to compete with others they don’t know, to a higher standard and in such a variety of sports is incredible.  

“The concepts of working as a team and waiting their turn are really good life skills for them to learn. They have really loved it and they are showing us what they’re made of.” 

The Royal School for the Blind brought a team along and teacher Sarah White commented: “It’s just amazing to get them out of school and mixing with the community. It brings such confidence and excitement. It’s a really special day. 

“The pandemic was a really difficult time. We had to stay within our own class bubbles and weren’t mixing at all. Having a day out and having lots of fun is really important for their social development.” 

One pupil, eight-year-old Phoebe, said: “I have enjoyed it lots and lots! Boccia was my favourite. I love throwing the balls. It makes me feeling happy and amazing when I win the game and I have been showing off my new wheelchair.” 

For 16-year-old Aman Almalaha from Sandfield Park School, the day out to practise her favourite sport of wheelchair basketball was priceless. 

“I just love it,” she said. “It means the world to me to get out of school and play basketball. Covid was horrible. We couldn’t do anything, we were just stuck in school. We were able to do PE lessons in school but not tournaments like this.” 

Lansbury Bridge School in St Helens were regular Panathlon competitors prior to Covid-19, but it was a debut for their sports coordinator Stacey Cook. 

“It has been horrible through the pandemic,” she said. “Even in school they haven’t been able to mix with other classes or socialise. Our lunch and after-school sports clubs stopped, we’ve only just re-started the football club and we’re trying to build everything back up. 

“Today the kids have had a whale of a time. They get the chance to develop turn-taking and social skills and build their tolerance levels. They have tolerated not winning really well. Just taking part is a huge thing for some of them. We’ve not had any behavioural issues at all.” 

Ten-year-old Joseph Harquin from Knowsley Central School said: “I’m made up because we came in second place in boccia! Covid was really sad and frustrating but at least we did the Panathlon tournaments at home [Virtual Panathlon’s at-home activities] and got medals. Now we’re back for another year though. I can’t wait!” 

For pupils from the inclusion unit at Woodchurch High School, the event was a great step up to inter-school competition after learning boccia at school. 

“This is great for their development not just in terms of sports skills, but social skills too,” said teaching assistant Chris Parker. “Getting them to fist-bump at the end, say thank you, make eye contact and smile are the priority. Being in a different environment is so important to developing that skillset.”