Panathlon gives parents and teachers “no excuses” for not engaging SEND children in competitive sport, according to two of London’s finest exponents of inclusive sport in schools.

Juma Abdullahi, Head of Community Sport at Featherstone High School, and Martin Baillie, School Games Organiser for Featherstone School Sports Partnership, have galvanised sport provision for pupils with disabilities and special needs across the borough of Ealing.

With Panathlon’s help, Juma and Martin have given hundreds of SEND children at 29 primary and six secondary schools opportunities to represent their school and enjoy physical activity that many had never experienced before.

They have organised an inter-school multi-skills competition pitting 29 local primary schools against each other, who participate without children having to leave school premises. They call it these events ‘hybrid’ (i.e. our Virtual Panathlon blueprint delivered in school by Martin and Juma in person, with every school’s scores recorded and gold, silver and bronze medal winners announced once everyone has competed). These hybrid events in turn raise awareness of the opportunities available to schools to progress to competing in our external events.

This term their hybrid Panathlon programme will engage over 800 primary-age pupils across Ealing. Overall this academic year, they are offering 115 events including ten-pin bowling, boccia, new-age kurling, football, archery and sitting volleyball.

Alongside the nearby Willow Tree Partnership, also in Ealing, the Featherstone partnership supplied most qualifiers for our recent West London Ten-Pin Bowling Final in Acton.

The Featherstone and Willow Tree partnerships will soon be collaborating to host the borough’s first Discovery swimming gala for local primary schools.

“There is no excuse now for schools or parents ever to exclude anyone from physical activity,” said Juma. “Our provision aims to engage every SEND child and give them the opportunity to find that sport that sets off a lightbulb in their head.

“We both believe there is a sport for everyone, regardless of their ability. That doesn’t mean they have to be brilliant at it, it’s just about discovering a sport that they love and want to play again. If we don’t offer enough of a wide range they may never discover that sport. The ideal feedback from a child for me is, ‘I love this sport and I didn’t even know it existed’.

“If anyone not involved in Panathlon or SEND sport got to see the faces of the boys and girls, they would not need convincing of the impact in any other way. They have so much fun and we intend to give them a lot more fun throughout the rest of the year.”

The partnership with Panathlon has given Juma and Martin a huge range of ideas, equipment, knowledge and support to deliver inclusive sports activities that are tailored to pupils’ needs and capabilities.

Martin explained: “We were already offering a lot of SEND events but Panathlon has enabled us to get bigger and better and offer a much broader range of activities.

“As a partnership, we can only go so far but with that extra support from Panathlon, we’ve been able to take it one step further.”

Wherever they’re delivering activities, Juma and Martin put up Panathlon banners. “It’s like a badge of quality,” says Juma. “Each participating school sees that logo and knows those activities will be fulfilling, fun and appropriate.”

The Featherstone School Sports Partnership’s link with Panathlon has enabled them to offer a packed calendar of competitions which, in many cases, are the highlight of children’s year. It gives them a platform to experience that most treasured feeling – representing their school.

“That is something many of these boys and girls might never have had before,” says Juma. “Even at our hybrid events, which take place on school premises, we make it clear they have been chosen as one of 16 pupils to represent their school in a team. That’s a precious thing for them.

“Why would anyone only target the top 10% to play for the school and deny a certain community of children just because they have a particular need? We want as many pupils as possible to taste what sport is like. It gives us a massive buzz to see how much fun they have.”

Martin explains the ripple effect it has on participants: “It really is a great tool for building confidence and resilience. They feel empowered.

“When they receive their medals and certificates in assembly, they have status. They are ‘somebody’ around the school corridors. It stimulates friendships between mainstream pupils and SEN kids, where previously there may have been a degree of separation.”

At a recent ten-pin bowling competition organised by the partnership, one parent approached Juma and said they never realised their child was capable of joining in with sporting activity in this way. The parent later took their child to a bowling alley at the weekend. Juma reveals: “That child has a severe disability, but we had opened the parent’s eyes to what their own child was able to achieve.”

Tony Waymouth, Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, commented: “Our work to kickstart the Virtual Panathlon programme during the lockdowns, coupled with the expertise of Juma and Martin in their local area, has given a vast number of SEND children a wider and more enriching sporting experience.

“One of the key things we’ve worked on together is giving children the opportunity to progress beyond the Featherstone Partnership area into our pathway events. This was exemplified by the recent West London Ten-Pin Bowling Final where Featherstone schools were well represented. This will continue across the rest of the academic year in other activities. We thank Martin and Juma for all their incredible work.”