Panathlon has embedded a packed pathway of competitions for special schools and SEND pupils in mainstream education in Surrey – and the positive impact has spread rapidly across the county.

Since the turn of the year, there have been eight primary multi-skills competitions leading to a Surrey county final in April; three secondary events with the winners and runners-up qualifying for a county final and a one-off competition for pupils in years 1 and 2.

These events have boosted provision for SEND pupils across the county from a low base. It’s been made possible through our partnership with Helen Ledwich, Active Schools Officer for Active Surrey. She in turn has engaged with the Surrey Special Schools Sports Association to ensure that as many pupils (and Young Leaders) as possible benefit from the opportunities we provide.

Kanenthrie Welsh, Head of Centre at Thames Ditton Junior School, is just one school staff member who was bowled over by the impact it had on children: “It was a brilliant event. My staff and pupils loved the sense of inclusivity. It’s one of the highlights in our year.”

Another staff member commented: “It’s such a fantastic event. The children and staff alike love it. It’s the right mix of fun but with a perfect level of competition.”

After hugging a Panathlon Leader, one young competitor said: “I’ll never forget you – this is the bestest thing I’ve ever done!”

As an Active Schools Officer tasked with engaging as many pupils as possible – especially those that experience barriers to participation – Panathlon is manna from heaven for Helen.

She said: “When I came into this role, there really wasn’t much connection with the special schools or the mainstream schools’ units for SEND children. Building that back up again by forming relationships, going on training courses and putting on Panathlon events ensures we’re giving as many opportunities as possible to as many children as we can.

“Other competitive events tend to be for the best and most athletically able children, so the SEND children never get to go beyond the gates, represent their school and be part of a team. That’s why SEND pupils (and ones that simply don’t take part) are our target. So having something already set up and run really well by a great Panathlon team is priceless. It’s perfect for these children who really don’t get any other opportunities.”

Some School Games Organisers in other counties have reported that engaging with special schools has been difficult. Helen says forming relationships and good communication are vital.

“They [special schools] have their own calendar of events, so I asked them, ‘What are your gaps? What are you missing?'” said Helen. “They didn’t have do anything like Panathlon which covered a wide spectrum of disabilities and additional needs within one event, so they have loved it. They are now part of our communications just as much as mainstream schools.”

Helen added: “Staff at special schools are very knowledgeable and great at what they do. But when they come to Panathlon, even the PE staff pick up fresh ideas and new thoughts. It’s also great for the pupils because they tend to do a lot of things in isolation, so socialising and being around other children who are the same as them is an enriching experience.

“For autistic boys, for example, the fact there’s winning and losing is a really good experience. The medals and trophies are really high quality, so they have to learn to cope when they don’t win them. Learning that you can’t win all the time is actually one of the under-estimated benefits.”

Provision for special schools in Surrey has expanded to swimming and football as well as multi-skills. Also in the county, we put on events in partnership with Guildford Primary Schools Sports Association. Across the county, many participating schools have since contacted Panathlon directly to deliver in-house competitions and training.