Panathlon’s growing pathway of competitions in Surrey has had a huge impact on pupils with special needs this academic year – with one boy in particular becoming “a totally different kid.” 

In partnership with Active Surrey, we held six primary competitions and four secondary events across the county for mainstream and special schools, with winners progressing through to primary and secondary finals.

New Barn School, a special school for pupils with autism, were crowned Surrey primary county champions in March. Inspired by the experience, the school has bought Panathlon sporting equipment for pupils to use at lunchtimes and in PE lessons. They’ve even had a target area painted on the playground to practise the target throwing games. 

“It’s had a massive impact on the kids,” says Leah Samain, New Barn’s PE Instructor and Learning Support Assistant. “It’s accessible and there’s no fear of failure in it, which is so important for our pupils. 

“The Young Leaders who officiated and guided them were also hugely important. The children could relate to them, they explained things and showed empathy; all the things our kids need. They were just great with them. Being a leader is now something for our pupils to aspire to.” 

For Brian Cox, a Year 7 pupil at New Barn, Panathlon proved to be inspirational. He had just arrived from another school where he’d had a difficult time, been socially excluded and required one-to-one support for most of each day. 

After overcoming initial discomfort and behaviour issues, competing and winning gold medals at Panathlon gave Brian such confidence that he now congratulates his peers and leads sporting activity in school.  

“We bought the long jump mat that we saw at Panathlon and he just loves it,” says Leah. “He now takes part in every break and lunchtime sport session and PE lesson. If he doesn’t want to be involved, he will referee. 

“He will help peers and even say ‘well done’ to them – and he’ll point out bits that pupils have done really well. It makes a big difference to some of the kids. That hasn’t necessarily come from us as staff, that’s come from the Panathlon leaders giving him positive comments.” 

Staff at New Barn have worked hard to support Brian within and outside the classroom, with Panathlon playing a big part in regulating his behaviour. 

“At the county final, he was the first person to say, ‘Well done everyone’ at the end,” recalls Leah. “It’s had a very big impact. He didn’t really know what to do with himself in social settings when he first arrived, but now he’s a different kid. Our success in Panathlon is part of that difference.” 

Helen Ledwich, Active Schools Officer for Active Surrey, added: “Off the back of participating in the Panathlon events we’ve run, New Barn are evidently now using Panathlon activities as a carrot in school.  

“Staff told me Brian absolutely loved the competitions and wouldn’t stop talking about it. It’s great he has found something he loves and it’s something that can now help to motivate him to do well in some of his other lessons.” 

Helen took on an additional inclusion role in September and had no hesitation in using Panathlon to engage mainstream and special schools, many of whom who previously lacked opportunities to get their SEND pupils involved in inter-school sports competitions. 

“Getting involved with Panathlon has made everyone at Active Surrey think a bit more about being inclusive and what works,” said Helen. “It has given us more opportunities to put events on for the children and has definitely brought us closer to special schools, who previously had largely done their own thing. 

“Special schools in particular had really lacked opportunities to get involved with competitions on a larger scale. People often see special schools as somehow separate, but Panathlon has allowed us to achieve real integration. 

“I had thought that special schools would worry about children running away or about transporting the more physically disabled children, but I actually found they are willing to come to all the competitions we put on. It wasn’t a barrier at all.” 

Helen says Panathlon’s format of pupils competing as a team and rotating round the activities is ideal for their self-confidence. “School staff really liked that pupils didn’t know how everyone else had done until the end,” she says. “They get to complete everything and really enjoy it without worrying about winning and losing, unlike football, netball or tennis.”  

Working with Panathlon this academic year has open Helen’s eyes to what’s possible: “It’s made us less scared of the SEND world,” she says. “I didn’t want to get it wrong, upset or hurt people or do the wrong thing, but it’s made us realise that by just talking and offering things, we can work together to benefit everyone. 

“It has made staff more confident to go back to their own schools and ensure their special needs children get the opportunities which they previously wouldn’t have had.” 

Also in Surrey (in addition to our competitions in partnership with Active Surrey) we’ve held two swimming galas for special schools at Moor House School & College, a ‘Panathlon day’ at Cleves School for members of the Elmbridge and Runnymede Primary School Sport Association and several events for deaf pupils.

We are working with Active Surrey on a girls’ football event in July and delivering an inclusive whole-school sports day for St Piers special school in June.

Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, said: “The work we are doing in Surrey continues to grow year on year. It’s superb to see the change in perception and attitudes towards SEN sport.”