Panathlon has had an immense impact on the special schools who have participated since the charity first crossed the border into North Wales just over four years ago.
Beginning with a seven-school multisport competition at Llandrillo College in Rhos on Sea in November 2018, Panathlon has since engaged thousands of pupils with additional needs from special schools, many of whom had never before represented their school in competitive sport.
The benefits to pupils, staff and school environments have been many and varied. The impact has been particularly keenly felt by schools who have previously found it difficult to connect with others due to isolation in such a large rural area.
Deio Brunelli from Ysgol Hafod Lon in Minffordd said: “The biggest problem we’ve got here is geography. Some children at our school live two hours away from each other!
“Panathlon has been able to unite children from special schools and give them an opportunity to take part in events that are actually competitive for them where they can win something – rather than being in the mix with mainstream pupils or not being able to take part at all because of their disability.
“Over the years, we’ve had difficulties finding activities for pupils with more profound learning difficulties or behavioural issues, but at Panathlon we’ve been able to involve a wider demographic of pupils. It’s been so positive for us.”
The lack of opportunities beyond the school gates for some schools in North Wales was only worsened by the pandemic. The expansion of Panathlon’s programme in the area has helped address this issues.
Aaron Jones, Physical Literacy Coordinator at Ysgol Y Gogarth in Llandudno, explained: “Due to factors out of our hands over the past couple of years we as a school have had to put barriers up to protect our vulnerable pupils. This made community engagement difficult, particularly when it came to sport.
“We used Panathlon’s virtual programme in school, but since the end of lockdown working with Panathlon has allowed us to open these doors again and engage in high-quality sporting events alongside pupils from neighbouring SEN schools. This has put smiles on our pupils’ faces, developed their social skills and positively impacted their health and wellbeing.”
Teacher Katie Jones from Ysgol Plas Brondyffryn, a centre for autism education in Denbigh, focused on how Panathlon provides its pupils with a place to meet and compete with others who are just like themselves.
She said: “Panathlon has given our pupils a safe, non-judgemental space to be themselves with other children who are just like them.”
Ysgol Plas Brondyffryn lacked any specific sporting competitions for pupils with additional learning needs before first engaging with Panathlon before the pandemic. During lockdown, Panathlon staff visited the school to deliver its in-school virtual programme and since the relaxing of Covid-19 restrictions, their pupils have attended all of our competitions in North Wales so far this academic year.
Mrs Jones added: “It is really lovely to have the opportunity to get out to these well-organised and fun sessions and it is great for our pupils to meet other children from different ALN [additional learning needs] schools.
“At a Panathlon, no-one judges them for their behaviour or their limitations. It has increased their self-worth – when they come back to school with their medals and trophies, they are so happy and can’t wait to show them off!”
Ysgol Hafod Lon have been involved since the very start of our expansion into North Wales. Panathlon’s event delivery staff even helped to run their school sports day to adapt the traditional running and throwing events more suitably for its pupils.
“What I had run in previous years wasn’t really engaging the kids effectively so I asked Panathlon to suggest some alternative activities,” said Mr Brunelli. “It has really transformed that day for us. Now, 90% of pupils want to engage in it, and the rest support those with the most profound impairments or learning needs as they participate.
“It has increased the percentage of those who choose to take part and gave fresh opportunities to those children who never win in a traditional sports day. That is such a boost to pupils’ confidence – and that success flows through to the classroom where they want to strive for more success.”
School staff shadowed the Panathlon staff who led the activities at sports day. Mr Brunelli explained: “For the staff, me included, it refreshed my mind with things I can do with the children. It’s given staff who aren’t as confident in teaching PE a lot of ideas for how to adapt things so each child is competitive. It really helped.”
This ‘ripple effect’ of Panathlon improving delivery of PE and sport in school is mirrored elsewhere. “It has enabled staff to think about different ways of using equipment that we may already have in school to create activities and games that are inclusive for all,” said Mrs Jones from Ysgol Plas Brondyffryn.
Dolcie Taylor, class teacher at Ysgol Tir Morfa, said: “When we came to the Panathlon, staff were shocked at the variation of activities the pupils could access.
“We enjoyed watching our pupils experience these activities and commented about the need to do these activities within school and in PE sessions. The activities encouraged numerous skills that the pupils could continue to develop in school to support their gross motor skills.
“Through Panathlon, staff have developed an understanding of creating a variety of sports activities that can be easily adapted for the variation of needs. Recently, we have used the virtual kurling skills pack to assist staff and pupils in PE and prepare for the next external Panathlon competition.”
Mr Jones from Ysgol Gogarth added: “Our staff have been able to use the skills they picked up during Panathlon events in school during PE sessions. This has seen an improvement in not only PE delivery but also the range of activities which we’ve made available to our pupils.”
Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, said: “We were delighted to have helped resurrect the North Wales special school sports programme before the onset of the pandemic. Then, during lockdown, we kept the Panathlon flame burning with widespread take-up of our virtual programme, supported by in-school visits by our staff whenever possible.
“This activity has meant that when external events were permitted again, schools have been fully on board and we were soon back to pre-pandemic levels of participation and enthusiasm. It has been a joy to see the North Wales area re-embrace Panathlon whole-heartedly.”