Panathlon’s record-breaking growth in 2021/22 is a welcome antidote to dispiriting reports of disabled people’s lack of engagement in sport and physical activity since the pandemic. 

Our recent annual participation figures showed that 52,476 young people with disabilities and special needs engaged in Panathlon sporting competition last academic year – the highest total in our charity’s 25-year history. 

We staged 758 sporting events across the year in 42 English counties and seven unitary areas of Wales in which 2,078 schools took part – giving their pupils with SEND priceless opportunities to engage in competitive sport they are often otherwise denied. 

The figures show Panathlon is challenging the narrative of worsening inequality and exclusion by offering SEND pupils accessible opportunities to represent their school, build competence, confidence, self-esteem and good health and creating sporting habits that last a lifetime. 

This contrasts with the trends highlighted in June’s report released by national charity Activity Alliance, which described “worrying effects” of Covid-19 on disabled people’s activity levels and a “need for urgent attention to tackle growing inequalities”. 

Panathlon’s provision addresses inequalities in several ways. Firstly, by being SEND-specific, with activities that are accessible whatever the severity of pupils’ disabilities, impairments or special needs. This contrasts with mainstream provision that purports to ‘include’ those with disabilities, often to their detriment. 

As Hannah Dennis, PE teacher at Treetops School in Grays, Essex, said: “My experience of PE is you may have a county swimmer at one end, and in the shallow end a child who won’t put his face in the water. It’s almost impossible to meet everybody’s needs. Panathlon is pitched at just the right level for all.”  

Dawn Wood, School Sports Coordinator for Links SSP in Sheffield says: “The thing about Panathlon is they are fully inclusive of everybody. Other organisations say that blithely, but they don’t really know what it truly means to include every single person. Panathlon can look you in the eye and say they definitely do that.” 

In the Activity Alliance report, disabled people reported feeling excluded from sport and physical activity during and after the pandemic. Panathlon recognised this and adapted quickly during the Covid-19 restrictions by launching Virtual Panathlon. 

The programme allowed school staff to host sports competitions safely on-site within the guidelines using existing school equipment. We distributed resource packs, activity cards, scoresheets and instruction videos to staff at participating schools. SEND pupils weren’t able to come to us, so we took Panathlon to them!  

Our flexibility in delivering Virtual Panathlon took many forms. Debbie Davies from our partners Bolton Wanderers in the Community, for example, left sports equipment at the football stadium’s reception for school staff to collect safely and drop off each day. Schools used it to hold virtual competitions, recorded and sent in their scores, and at the end of the week Debbie announced a winner. Children with SEND were able to represent their school in Panathlon competition without leaving the premises.

“It enabled children with SEND to experience that competitive element, despite the restrictions,” said Debbie. “It just grew and grew. There was a real need for it within schools during that time. We even got children from a local hospice, Derian House, involved too.” 

Virtual Panathlon takes place in school with pupils playing new-age kurling

A particular issue throughout Covid-19 lockdowns for disabled people was isolation. Panathlon combated this by organising live online experiences with our Ambassadors including Commonwealth Games gold medallist Nathan Maguire and England deaf cricket international James Dixon. This was particularly important for deaf pupils whose sense of isolation was all the more acute during this time. 

Once restrictions were eased, we took further steps to break down barriers to participation by adapting our face-to-face programmes. For example, we launched our Discovery swimming gala format, specifically designed to rebuild pupils’ water confidence and skills by giving them an accessible and positive experience of swimming. This also helped combat the lack of provision caused by the draining of school pools, expense, lack of lesson time and the dwindling number of local authority facilities. 

When face-to-face delivery returned under Covid-19 social distancing regulations, we adapted all our programmes by reducing numbers, creating extra space and making innovative format changes such as opposing teams throwing from either end of the boccia court. 

“We are proud to have achieved such record-breaking success ‘against the grain’ since the onset of the pandemic,” said Panathlon Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth. 

“During a time when so many SEND people have felt disinclined to take part in sport, our blended approach of external and in-school sporting provision has enabled us to energise and activate more children with SEND than ever before. 

“The huge demand for the forthcoming academic year, including new areas of the country looking to host Panathlon events for the first time, already bodes well for our aim of surpassing last year’s impressive participation figures.” 

Panathlon Ambassador and Paralympic gold medallist Liz Johnson added: “For Panathlon to engage 50,000 pupils with SEND against the backdrop of inequalities and isolation through the pandemic is testament to the charity’s innovation, dedication and adaptability. They continue to break the mould and children with disabilities and special needs are benefiting immeasurably in ever-increasing numbers. It is a joy to see.”