Competing at the London 2012 Aquatics Centre in a special Panathlon swimming gala “captured the imagination” of primary-age pupils from the London boroughs of Redbridge and Havering.

Panathlon staged the competition to introduce Year 4, 5 and 6 pupils with special educational needs to the experience of competing in a swimming gala. Many had never swum competitively before, let alone in such a vast and prestigious arena.

Hylands School from Havering were crowned winners and teacher Sue Marshall commented: “Our children loved the opportunity to participate in an external gala. All the events, especially the team events, captured the children’s imagination.

“They especially loved the relays and the float games as they love working as a team. Our team ranged from years 4-6 but they all encouraged each other, with friendships formed.

One of Hylands’ Year 5 pupils, Dolly, said she really enjoyed the opportunity to try out her swimming skills: “Thank you for letting me swim today. I am a little tired but extremely happy!”

Olivia Harries, teacher from second-placed Towers School in Havering, added: “Today has really inspired the children to want to carry on swimming. They feel super proud knowing that they did the best for themselves but also their team. The feeling of, ‘Are we actually here?’ resonated through everyone.”

“We wanted to stay all day! We just didn’t want it too end!” said one pupil.

“New Rush Hall Primary, from Redbridge, finished in third. Their teacher in charge, Lyanne Clark, said: “I have been to many galas over my years as a swimming teacher/coach in Redbridge but this was the first time that New Rush Hall School has been ever been invited to one. We loved it.

“The children managed to behave and wait for their race. This is normally very hard for our pupils as they all have educational special needs and waiting is a problem for them all.

“The secondary-school pupils [from nearby Barking Abbey School] were fantastic. They helped pupils in the water and explained the races perfectly. Everything ran very smoothly and the organisers ensured that all pupils were in the right place at the right time.

“This was one of the best trips, visits or sporting event that we have ever attended.”

Lauretta Rutherford, parent of one of the young competitors, said: “This was such an inclusive event. As a parent I cannot believe it. It was fun, interactive, team-orientated, and my child has already asked about going swimming at local pool!”

The gala was staged with support from Pentland Brands, GLL and the Jack Petchey Foundation.