Children with additional learning needs (ALN) already face barriers to participating in competitive sport – but in communities affected by isolation and social deprivation these barriers multiply.

That’s why Panathlon has strategically targeted some of the most deprived rural communities since we first started delivering in North Wales. Our impact has been significant, with many schools able to give their ALN pupils meaningful and targeted sporting activity for the first time.

Rhosymedre Community Primary School just outside Wrexham is situated in one of the 10% most deprived areas in Wales. It has a resource provision for pupils with learning needs and a separate one for children with behaviour, social and emotional needs. These pupils have taken part in 10-pin bowling, new-age kurling and multi-skills Panathlon competitions this academic year, opening their eyes to a world where they can compete and achieve on a level playing field with peers from other communities.

Local sports provision tailored for these cohorts of children is incredibly sparse. Parents’ awareness of, and engagement in, local chidren’s sports opportunities also tends to be low, with cost and transport proving prohibitive.

“Our children have financial and social barriers and limited parental responsibility,” said Sian Davies, ALNCO at Rhosymedre Primary. “In their community there just isn’t much around and they have big issues with accessibility. Even taking them to another part of Wrexham might involve a bus into the centre, then another bus elsewhere, so it’s very difficult for them.”

In this kind of environment, providing competitive sporting opportunities that are tailor-made for ALN students is a God-send for school staff. As Sian explained: “Before Panathlon, we had very little for children with significant ALN. 

“They are integrated with our mainstream pupils which makes it very difficult when it comes to sporting competition. They may have similar physical ability levels but won’t have the same thinking or concept skills. Panathlon really benefits the children from the resource provision who really struggle with that element of competition.

“Panathlon simplify the games so they’re not too complex for them to understand. It releases the pressure so they can just enjoy participating. For some of them, even turn taking and waiting is a real challenge for their social skills. We work on that in class using social stories, but to go and apply it independently at an external event is absolutely huge.”

The platform and environment that Panathlon provides is a big eye-opener for participants. “They get to see that there are others out there with similar needs and abilities – and that’s huge for them,” says Sian. “Usually, when representing the school, you’ll be chosen because you’re the best, but this isn’t about who’s the best, it’s about giving them a chance to taste success whatever their abilities.

“They get an incredible sense of achievement and work as a team in an informal way – it doesn’t matter that they’re not the best.”

Sian describes one boy, who had only just joined the school’s resource provision, who got the first strike of the day at a Panathlon 10-pin bowling event in Wrexham. “He was absolutely delighted with his certificate,” Sian says. “It’s that feeling that they can do something – it was huge for his self-esteem and self-worth. They have so many barriers when it comes to learning that to get that sense of achievement is unbelievable.”

Sian says the impact goes deeper – and is evident back at school: “You see the impact in PE lessons as they start to encourage each other more and work as a team. You get that dialogue that you might not necessarily have had before those events. 

“We’ve almost modelled how to encourage them within those sessions and they replicate it in PE sessions. Even when making a board game or devising their own games, they take elements they have seen at Panathlon.”

For children with additional learning needs on the estates of North Wales who have historically been starved of opportunities and faced all kinds of barriers, Panathlon is providing multi-faceted benefits with long-lasting positive effects.

Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, said: “The impact we have made at Rhosymedre is exactly what we want to replicate and embed across the schools we work with in Wales. We want to spread the word that, by participating in Panathlon, they can make a positive difference to their pupils’ lives.”