Staff at Downham Primary School say their recent gold-medal winning Panathlon breakthrough has given their pupils the confidence to enter mainstream sports events.

The school in Billericay, Essex, has been part of the Panathlon family for around four years. They had never won an event until earlier this term, when they went home as champions from our Essex Primary Swimming Final at the London 2012 Aquatics Centre.

The maiden victory has had a galvanising effect on the pupils and staff. Members of the gold-medal winning team have since volunteered for a non-SEN swimming gala; something which they would not have had the confidence to do previously.

“There’s no doubt we can trace that back to winning in London,” said Downham’s PE Lead for Competitive Sport, Julia Warrior. “I canvassed lots of classes and explained they would have to swim 25m and they put their hands up straight away.

“They grew in confidence through the event [at the Aquatics Centre]. They thought, ‘We’re not just here to make up the numbers. We can do this!’ They knew they were winning their races and they definitely became more confident because they were doing really well.

“After that experience, why shouldn’t they give a mainstream event a go? We can see they now have the self-belief that they can progress from an SEN environment. They can represent their school and put their Downham t-shirts and tracksuits on with pride.”

That pride extended from the classroom into the staff room. Julia reveals: “There was a real buzz around the staff after we came back from London. Quite a few staff members said how lovely it was to see them so proud at representing the school, showing off their medals and accolades.”

Downham’s Assistant Head Teacher Pippa Edlin added: “We were roaring from the sidelines on the day! If they do their best and finish fourth, that’s brilliant. If it’s gold medals, even better! Fulfilling their potential is our only goal and they absolutely did that on the day.”

During lockdown, Downham experienced our Virtual Panathlon programme with our event managers Howard Nicholls, Dom Fenton and apprentice Harry Bowtell delivering multisport, football and cricket activity in school. The ripple effect has been significant.

“It was massively important,” said Pippa. “Some of our children on the SEN register were really anxious about Covid so anything that took their mind off it and kept things more normal was brilliant. They were able to switch off and have fun.

Pippa added: “Having Panathlon take place in schools has made me think about my practice and ways to adapt activities which wouldn’t have been on my radar before. It has made staff think about how to make sport inclusive and has enhanced the understanding of staff and children.”

About 10% of pupils at Downham are on the SEN register and the school’s next target is to introduce some Key Stage 1 children to Panathlon by entering a Discovery gala for the first time.

Panathlon Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, said: “Downham’s journey with us is what we hope to achieve with every school in the Panathlon family – year-on-year progression in our impact and more opportunities being offered both externally and within school. We are not seeking one-off hits, but to become embedded as part of the school’s offer for SEND pupils.

“We thank Julia and Pippa for embracing the opportunities and look forward to seeing them at more events before the end of the academic year.”