Six months of qualifying competitions climaxed in two nail-biting finals as 24 schools converged on Liverpool for our North West Primary and Secondary Regional Boccia Finals at Greenbank Sports Academy.

William Howard School from Brampton in Cumbria won the secondary gold medals for a fourth consecutive time while Button Lane Primary from Manchester were our primary champions – and the value of progressing through our competitive pathway of local, county and regional competitions was written all over the children’s beaming faces.

The journey to the regional finals back in the autumn term at our local qualifiers across Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Merseyside and the Wirral. The winners made it to their respective county finals and the best performing teams then made it all the way to Wednesday’s regional final (20 March).

It is a format which builds pupils’ enthusiasm, motivation and self-confidence as they progress through the rounds – especially as so many of them so often lack opportunities to participate in competitive sport.

North West Regional Secondary champions William Howard School

‘This is where they can really excel’

After nervously watching her team claim victory on a tie-break end after a 3-3 draw with Ladybridge School from Bolton, William Howard School teacher Tracey Croucher said: “We really love Panathlon’s competitive structure.

“Lots of kids can get involved at the start at the local events but being able to qualify into a higher level of competition gives those who want to take it further the chance to progress as far as they can. I think that’s really important. Winning is important to a lot of them.”

William Howard’s team bus left school at 6am, but there was no doubt it had been worth it as they departed Liverpool with gold medals jangling around their necks. Mrs Croucher runs boccia and table cricket practice after school every Monday plus extra training in the build-up to Panathlon competitions. The hard work paid off handsomely.

“I know how much this means to the students to be North West champions,” said Mrs Croucher. “A lot of them don’t particularly achieve academically, but they are really excelling in this. Parents have told me this has made a massive difference in terms of their independence and making new friends. We’ve got students from different year groups here and they’ve all come together. That doesn’t really happen in anything else within school.”

Primary gold medal winners Button Lane from Manchester

‘My heart was beating so fast’

The primary final also went down to an extra end after Button Lane and Lowercroft School from Bury drew 4-4, with Button Lane winning the tie-break 2-0. Seven-year-old Felix said: “On the last shot, my heart was beating so fast I could barely control it!” His team-mate Tyler, 11, added: “My friends will probably cheer a lot in assembly. The head teacher is going to be very happy and so are my mum and dad.”

Eesa Ali, 10, from beaten finalists Lowercroft had been practising and discussing tactics with his grandad. His dad, Alyas Ali, said: “He has absolutely loved it. He wants to enter the world championships now!”

‘This is a game-changer’

As well as challenging themselves in a higher standard of competition, the many other benefits of progressing through our pathway include broadening pupils’ horizons by taking them out of their normal environment.

The team from Boundary Primary in Blackpool reside in an area of high social deprivation. Year 1 teacher and PE coordinator Sammy Webster said: “Many of them rarely leave Blackpool and some have never seen the illuminations, so a trip to Liverpool builds their cultural capital.

“The children here today do struggle academically but this has definitely raised their confidence. This is a game-changer; it raises their aspirations, broadens their horizons and gives them opportunities they just don’t normally get. I can guarantee this will be all these guys talk about for weeks!”

Greenbank School from Cheshire finished outside the medals, but PE teacher JP Kenny said the pupils had been “impacted massively” by the journey of making it through the mid-Cheshire and Cheshire qualifying rounds. “They paraded the trophy around school for a week!” he chuckled. “They’re motivated and their confidence is sky high. The biggest impact you see is in the school yard – their communication and friendships definitely improve.”

‘It raises their profile within the school’

Neil Garside, the Character, Leadership and Service Lead at William Hulme Grammar in Manchester, agreed: “Being part of the Panathlon team raises their profile within the school,” he said. “They loved the experience of coming through each stage.

“They have house competitions within the school which are amongst their friends, but competing against other schools changes their mindset. That’s a life skill to adapt to proper competition when it gets a bit more serious.”

Learning Support Assistant Gillian Dylan from Marlborough School in Cheshire said: “These are kids who wouldn’t normally be picked for the football or netball team – or necessarily want to be – but boccia is a sport they have really come to love. It’s so inclusive.

“Some of these kids don’t always like being part of an assembly, but they get to stand together as a team. They are welcome back to school as champions. It has a massive impact on them.”

Last week, Panathlon held another North West Regional Boccia Final for physically disabled and impaired Under-19 students at Greenbank Sports College, offering the same opportunity to travel and compete as part of our competitve pathway structure.

Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, said: “Panathlon’s competitive structure is about giving pupils a clear path to get better and achieve more. In boccia, that means pupils gaining a deeper understanding of rules, tactics and skills as they go along and being able to fulfil their ambitions. The knock-on effect is confidence which spills over to other areas of their lives in and out of school.”