Debbie Davies’s dedication has seen Bolton become a hotbed of Panathlon activity – with 16 events throughout the 2021/22 academic year engaging and energising students with disabilities and special needs.

Panathlon’s strong links with Bolton Wanderers in the Community have allowed us to stage primary, secondary, Xtend, ten-pin bowling, boccia, new-age kurling, cricket and table cricket competitions in the town, including county (Greater Manchester) and three North West regional competitions, which have seen qualifying schools travel from Cumbria, Merseyside, Cheshire and Great Manchester to take part. Over 1,200 participants with SEND have taken part in face-to-face competitions.

The plethora of activity in 2021/22 follows on from the huge success of Panathlon’s virtual programme in Bolton during the Covid-19 lockdowns, with 10 primary schools, seven secondaries and a children’s hospice taking part in our in-school sporting activities.

Competitors at the Panathlon Greater Manchester Xtend Finals in March

For Brian Richardson, Bolton’s School Games Organiser, Panathlon’s growth and influence in the area has been a “massive bonus”.

He added: “We used to have two or three events per year for SEND children but since we’ve got involved with Panathlon we have well over a dozen and it has quadrupled the number of children who can access and enjoy sporting activity. It’s just gone ‘boom!’

“Schools are recognising the name and come out because the events are so well organised, everyone gets a medal and certificate, the children are doing things that suit their abilities and they’re succeeding. From a self-esteem position they are flourishing.

“As an ex-PE teacher and now SGO, even though I’m quite long in the tooth these days, I’m learning all the time, working alongside specialists who give us greater knowledge about delivering with this demographic of children. As SGOs, we can support these competitions, but the expertise and skillset belong to Debbie.”

Debbie’s hard work and local contacts with schools has established a structure of local, county and regional competitions which have galvanised PE and sport provision in schools for SEND pupils.

She said: “Panathlon’s growth in Bolton and across Greater Manchester has been phenomenal this year. Despite the challenges of the pandemic we’ve managed to build a competitive pathway for children with SEND and demonstrate the power of sport in positively influencing young people’s lives in so many different ways.

Nathan Maguire at the recent North West Regional Finals

“I’d like to thank the Bolton SGO’s for what continues to be a fantastic partnership and Nathan Maguire, Panathlon’s Ambassador, for attending our North West Finals days and inspiring our next generation of athletes. I’m so excited for the next academic year in Bolton and beyond!”

In many cases, the impact on individual pupils has been astounding. Carol Lowe, Learning Mentor at Pikes Lane Primary School in Bolton, said: “One of our Year 4 girls has made so much progress with her communication skills that she has been taken off the SEN register – and I do believe that is in large part down to the confidence she’s got from Panathlon.

“This morning she has led 40 children in a dance class at the front of the stage in the assembly hall. She is absolutely fabulous. She has got pictures from Panathlon up all over her bedroom.”

Bolton Wanderers in the Community volunteer Matty Unsworth

Speaking at the recent North West Primary Regional Final at Bolton Arena, Carol added: “We have several children here who would never usually represent the school in a team. For them to return to school with a medal and trophy, get on the stage in Friday’s Sparkle Assembly and declare, ‘I’m a winner,’ is beyond priceless.”

Panathlon has had unexpected side benefits too: 28-year-old Matty Unsworth has completed 50 hours of volunteering for Bolton Wanders in the Community since he transitioned from participant to volunteer in January. His passion lies with helping out at Panathlons and he loves welcoming teams into the venues and officiating at boccia, new-age kurling, cricket and table cricket competitions. “My role is to boss everybody about!” he says.

Young Leaders have been the other beneficiaries with hundreds of secondary-age pupils receiving training and gaining experience in leading and officiating activities.

Students from Thornleigh Salesian College in Bolton have been Young Leaders at four Panathlons. Bernadette O’Hare, PE Lead and local SGO, said: “Working with younger students with special educational needs and physical disabilities has taught my students many, many things.

Action from Panathlon’s North West Primary Final in July

“This group had six months in Year 7 then they were locked in their bedrooms for nearly two years due to Covid, so communication is a massive issue for them. They struggle to mix with others. Before Panathlon they were very shy and inhibited, even with each other. Now they’re interacting with different peer groups and stepping out of their comfort zone by interacting with adults and children with special needs. It has impacted their confidence and self-esteem massively.”

Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer Tony Waymouth added: ““We thank Debbie and Bolton Wanderers in the Community for the tireless and inspiring work they have done to create a Panathlon stronghold in Bolton.

“This work has created a domino effect across other Greater Manchester boroughs and the high level of engagement has seen these boroughs buy into the Panathlon vision. The nucleus in Bolton has given us a solid base of personnel, venue access, supporting ancillaries and leadership from which we can stage successful events and develop the development pathway across the north west.”