Young people with disabilities and special needs in Tees Valley have never had more opportunities to enjoy competitive sport – and they have Emma Turnbull and Panathlon to thank.

For the last eight years, Emma has held simultaneous roles which have enabled her to take ownership of inclusive sport provision in her region of the north-east: she is Stockton’s School Games Organiser and Youth Sport Trust’s Tees Valley Inclusion Lead, as well as being Partnership Development Manager for the Stockton Schools Sport Partnership.

The autumn term will see her relinquish these roles and return to the local authority post from which she has been on secondment for the best part of a decade!

Emma was the key driver behind Panathlon’s great success in the area and leaves behind a legacy of thriving sport and leadership opportunities for young people.

“Eight years ago, the offer available in the area was quite limited,” she remembers. “I had to identify what was needed, and as soon as I heard about Panathlon it was clear they could meet the need we had locally.

“The variety of multi-sport competitions that specifically targeted SEN pupils and were adaptable to their needs just fitted the bill. It pitches the competition at the appropriate level for the students that we’re working with.”

There are 60 primary and 13 secondary schools in Emma’s patch in Stockton and she estimates 60-70 of Tees Valley schools have participated in Panathlon events, including multi-sport, primary, Xtend, PMLD, secondary and swimming.

“Initially it was just one event and when I found out a bit more about what they offered, we tried some of the other programmes,” says Emma. “As soon as I met Howard and Tony [Panathlon’s Events Manager and COO, respectively] and I found out what the schools wanted, it flourished. We have had a great working relationship.”

The PMLD (Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties) events stick out as highlights for Emma. “Early on, we did one where the majority of athletes were wheelchair users. The teachers were just brimming and saying, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing!’

Panathlon Young Leaders

“For children who aren’t responsive it’s just about being out, being able to represent their school and getting the stimulus from the environment.

“The teachers who work with them can tell the happiness in the children. I put on more PMLD events because I do think a lot of children miss out on participating in the sporting world.”

Getting schools in the area involved with Panathlon’s swimming programme has also been extremely fruitful.

“I really pushed to get as many schools as possible involved in Panathlon swimming because what we had previously was unfortunately inappropriate and tokenistic.

“Originally it was all about getting them to swim 25 metres, and swim events for SEN pupils were tagged on to the end of Year 5 and 6 mainstream events. It just didn’t work and we used to get very limited numbers of entrants.

“It was immediately obvious that Panathlon was pitched much better to their needs and abilities. It was just about getting them into the water and lifting confidence.”

Emma was based at Northfield School & Sports College and used Panathlon events to develop the skills and experience of their students, and others at nearby schools, as Panathlon Young Leaders. She calls it “a wonderful opportunity and an eye-opener” for them to be able to work with children with disabilities and SEN close-up.

“Usually, my role was about arranging these opportunities for them and I didn’t get to experience it with them too often, so it was a very special day when I accompanied Northfields Young Leaders to the London 2012 Aquatics Centre a couple of years ago. It was brilliant seeing them put into practice all they’d learned at such an iconic venue.”

The last year of her role has, of course, necessitated much agility and adaptability due to the restrictions imposed on sport and physical activity due to Covid-19.

She was hugely grateful to Panathlon’s virtual programme which provided guidance to enable schools to run in-house competitions themselves on-site.

“I feel as if the virtual programme has allowed us to get a lot more schools engaged,” she says. “It has provided more children and more staff with an opportunity to find out what Panathlon is.

“A lot of the time in our mainstream programme it’s that same one teacher who brings the SEN children along to external events. Now it’s internal, it’s spreading into all our classrooms. They get the whole staff involved. Now everybody knows what Panathlon is and what’s involved.”

Panathlon wishes Emma all the best in her new role and thanks her for the huge effort and dedication she has shown in helping to establish Panathlon in Tees Valley.

Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, commented: “We owe a huge thank you to Emma. Our great working relationship over the years , has allowed children in the region to really embrace and benefit from our programmes.

“It is a perfect example of how we can liaise with local School Games Organisers for immense mutual benefit. We’re excited to be forming plans for even more enhanced activity in Tees Valley going forward.”