Recent independent research proved that Panathlon is bucking many negative nationwide trends in young people’s physical activity – and nowhere is this more evident than Wales. 

Panathlon has delivered programmes in Wales since November 2018 and has quickly become a cherished fixture on many school calendars, exerting a positive influence on the lives of thousands of pupils with disabilities and additional learning needs. 

In 2022/23, Panathlon delivered 18 specialist sport competitions for a total of 793 pupils and 35 Young Leaders across 10 Welsh unitary authorities, including our first ever forays south of The Valleys into South Wales. 

Our programmes are helping to address many of the country’s specific and unique inequalities. The Sport Wales School Sport Survey of 2022 highlighted many disparities in access to sport and physical activity between pupils with disabilities, impairments and additional learning needs (ALN) and their mainstream peers. For example: 

– 59% of pupils with disabilities/ALN have an unmet demand for sport 

– Only 60% of schools have the equipment to enable inclusion of pupils with disabilities/ALN 

– Just 35% of children with a disability/ALN participate in organised sport 

But there is strong evidence that many schools in Wales have begun to address these issues since engaging with Panathlon. 

Deio Brunelli, Health and Wellbeing Coordinator at Ysgol Hafod Lon in Penrhyndeudraeth, said: “We now use our equipment properly, so things like boccia and kurling sets are used in accordance with competition rules. Our swimming also has an outlet now with the Panathlon gala to work towards. We now structure our extra-curricular clubs with specific practices for upcoming Panathlon days.  

“For some pupils it is the first time they have taken part in a competition, and they feel very proud to represent the school. To take home a trophy or medal gives them a massive confidence boost and I find they are now much more motivated to improve in sporting aspects.” 

Many other Welsh schools also reported that Panathlon had given their disabled/ALN pupils their first experience of competitive sport. 

One of them was SEN teacher Iola Jones from Ysgol Pendalar in Caernarfon, a special school whose pupils have competed in multiple Panathlon events. “Competitions are usually not available and tailored for our children, but the pupils now love bringing back their medals to show in the school assembly – a first for many of them,” Iola said. 

Phil Thomas, Deputy Head Teacher at Ysgol Tir Morfa in Rhyl, said: “Since the Covid pandemic, Panathlon have been virtually the sole organisers of such events for pupils with additional needs.”

Although the Sport Wales survey shows that 40% of schools feel they don’t have the equipment to include disabled/ALN pupils, many staff are reporting that Panathlon has opened their eyes to new ways in which existing equipment can be adapted to meet pupils’ needs. 

Rebecca Roberts, Key Stage 2 teacher at Pen Coch Specialist Primary School in Flint, bases PE lessons entirely around Panathlon’s activities with boccia, new-age kurling, precision beanbag, ten-pin topple and flight path events. 

She said: “Every child, regardless of disability, is now getting a chance to access a sport. Each class I have is so varied in age, disability and need, but all of the events and games can be adapted ever so slightly, or indeed significantly, to meet the need of every child who comes into the PE session. 

“Going to that first Panathlon event gave me so many ideas to bring back to the school and implement. The impact has been so big in such a short time. They’re absolutely loving it. 

“We’ve always had things like boccia kits in the cupboard and now the impetus is really there to get all the equipment out every week and make the most of it, because these events are fun, exciting and engaging for the children.” 

This is precisely the ‘ripple effect’ described by independent researchers in an Impact Report on Panathlon published in September. It showed that Panathlon has given staff fresh ideas, prompted changes to schools’ curriculum, led to the launch of disability/ALN-specific lunchtime and after-school clubs, investment in equipment, inspired sporting fixtures between local schools and pupils’ participation in inclusive community sport clubs. 

Further factors that particularly impact on many Welsh schools when it comes to external sporting provision are geographical isolation and high levels of social and economic deprivation. 

Sport Wales’s School Sport Survey showed that the level of unmet demand for sport was highest (63%) among schools with the highest quartile of free school meals, with unmet demand lowest (49%) among schools with fewer pupils on free school meals. 

At Ysgol Plas Brondyffryn, a specialist centre for autism in North Wales, they had suffered many years of “frustration” at the lack of provision in PE and sport.  

“Our local disability officer came in with games that had been designed for pupils in wheelchairs, blind or visually impaired or deaf students,” recalls teacher Katie Jones. “They never really ‘got’ our pupils. Someone even once said to us, ‘There’s no category in the Special Olympics for autism!’ – as if that was an excuse for not developing any activities for autistic children! 

“So when we went to the first Panathlon, we were blown away! At Panathlon, they just ‘get’ it. They understand the children’s capabilities and limitations. It’s so well-tailored for them.” 

Schools in Gwent have reported that, prior to their engagement with Panathlon, they had found no local competitive sport opportunities for their disabled/ALN pupils. 

Rural isolation also limits access to specialist sport provision for many schools. As Mr Brunelli from Ysgol Hafod Lon said: “The biggest problem we’ve got here is geography. Some children at our school live two hours away from each other!  

“Panathlon has been able to unite children from special schools and give them an opportunity to take part in events that are actually competitive for them where they cand an win something – rather than being in the mix with mainstream pupils or not being able to take part at all because of their disability.  

“Over the years, we’ve had difficulties finding activities for pupils with more profound learning difficulties or behavioural issues, but at Panathlon we’ve been able to involve a wider demographic of pupils. It’s been so positive for us.” 

Our growth throughout Wales has been achieved thanks to several key supporters: Garfield Weston Foundation, the Moondance Foundation, Welsh Water, the Archbishop of Wales Fund and Thomas Howell Educational Fund.

The Neumark Foundation has also provided a grant which will help us tackle many of the inequalities which were highlighted in the 2022 Sport Wales School sport survey. Their funding will help us expand our programmes in North Wales and give ALN pupils in mainstream settings the opportunity to experience the thrill of sport, teamwork and individual development.