Students at Cumbria Academy for Autism have “developed massively” after being given roles as Young Leaders at Panathlon’s Virtual events during the pandemic.

Over the last academic year, the Academy in Workington has developed a sports leadership programme which trains older students to support the delivery of Panathlon and other inclusive sport events.

The Young Leaders were on hand to guide and officiate the Academy’s primary pupils in December when they won the Cumbria Primary Panathlon and performed their duties again in another multi-sport event in the summer term.

Teacher Jo Hedley said: “The school has only existed for two years and has obviously faced a lot of disruption due to Covid. I’ll be honest, when we started training our leaders for the Panathlon and other festivals, we didn’t know how it was going to go.

“A lot of our pupils have sensory issues, but we were really surprised by their maturity and the understanding and tolerance they showed towards the younger ones. They were really good with the younger pupils, which we weren’t expecting.”

With the help of Active Cumbria, the school secured funding to enrol pupils in an ‘I Can Lead’ sports leadership programme for over-13s. The training has given them the knowledge and confidence to lead at Panathlon events and other inclusive sport activities.

Jo says the Young Leader roles have been “massive” in lifting autistic pupils’ confidence. “Giving them roles and responsibility has really developed them,” she reflected. “Each pupil is so individual and they all have complex needs, so it’s difficult to generalise, but we’ve got individuals who wouldn’t even talk to their peers, let alone lead anybody at a sports festival.

“In terms of confidence and communication skills, they have developed immensely. Organising and encouraging other people is a vital skill set for them. Often with their own peers they can be quite negative, but when they’re supporting others they’re really positive and encouraging. That’s been lovely to see.”

Cumbria Autism

Panathlon’s Debbie Davies visited the school to help run Virtual Panathlon activity and train the Young Leaders.

Debbie remarked: “’The leaders embraced the Panathlon event and were a credit to themselves and their school. With some extra training and guidance provided in-between classes, their progress over the morning was a joy to see.

“Through repetition, staff and peer support, the leaders’ confidence grew, thus enhancing their performance. They showed great maturity introducing, demonstrating and scoring activities whilst impressively displaying patience and support for the participants’ individual needs.”

The overall impact of Panathlon competitions on the school has also been hugely beneficial.

“The social element of doing Panathlon is massive for us, because we’re not just about academic targets, we’re about social targets,” says Jo. “Panathlon gives our students a perfect platform to develop those skills.

“It’s been really motivating for the pupils during what’s been a very difficult time. They’ve enjoyed having that competitive element and they absolutely loved their medals.

“We got a trophy for the Cumbria county event in winter and it gave them a great sense of achievement. It’s just something different. We obviously do a lot of PE within school but during lockdown a lot of it was online which is always harder to engage them in. Panathlon was a real boost to the pupils and us as staff.”

Panathlon Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, said: “The Virtual Programme has given us a platform to engage more schools and expand our reach. Cumbria is a good example of this, with schools in Whitehaven, Workington, Barrow and Penrith all getting involved.

“This engagement has brought demand for face-to-face events in the next academic year. The Cumbria Academy for Autism represents just how big Panathlon’s impact has been over the pandemic. The whole-school participation is testament to Jo Hedley as PE Lead. She has embraced what we offer and we can’t wait to offer the opportunity for them to compete against other schools in external competitions.”

Thank you to Cumbria Community Foundation for their support.

Cumbria Community Foundation