Virtual Panathlon has proven successful in engaging traditionally ‘hard-to-reach’ age groups – even in areas most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The initial lockdowns and regularly shifting regulations thereafter have restricted PE and sport provision in schools. In many cases, competitive sport (whether inter-school or external events against other schools) has disappeared off the agenda altogether, especially for SEND pupils. 

Secondary school is when participation in sport traditionally sees a big drop-off with pupils more difficult to engage as they go through the early to mid-teenage years. 

Despite all these barriers, Virtual Panathlon has shown that successful engagement – with SEND pupils, with teenagers, and despite the hindrance of Covid – can be achieved. 

Not only have secondary schools embraced the programme and embedded competitions in the heart of the curriculum, many schools have been empowered to train older students as Young Leaders so they can officiate and support their younger peers during virtual competitions. 

One particular hotbed of Virtual Panathlon activity through the pandemic has been Bolton.  

Victoria Halliwell, Assistant Learning Director for SEND at Ladybridge High School, commented: “Last year I took the students to the various Panathlon events around Bolton and was worried that the students wouldn’t get the same enjoyment or sense of achievement with the events being held in school, but they really did. 

“Several of our students have asked if we can do it again and one student said, ‘It’s better than normal PE!’ I think our students feel a sense of achievement as the activities are suitable for all. It builds confidence and self-esteem which filters into their other lessons.” 

One Ladybridge pupil said: “It was the best thing ever because it was really fun, even though some activities were easy and some were hard!” 

Panathlon has provided easy-to-use instructions, videos and online training to empower school staff to hold events and train their older students to be Young Leaders. One school in Bolton trained an army of 27 leaders, who are being lined up for a face-to-face competition (Covid-permitting) in the autumn term. 

The responsibility and experience of guiding younger SEND pupils through the many activities and officiating in the competitions has brought many benefits. 

Nicola, PE teacher at Kearsley Academy in Bolton, said: “Our students have loved Virtual Panathlon and being able to lead events has really made a difference to our sports leaders. We did the multi-sport event today and even in the rain the children loved it!

“I think we are going to continue next year running events once a month for our SEN students. Thank you so much for your support and for this opportunity. It has really helped.” 

Just up the road in Blackpool – another area affected badly by high Covid-19 levels – Virtual Panathlon has also enriched secondary-age pupils with disabilities and special needs. 

“The Virtual Programme has been terrific for us,” said Stuart Johnson, PE coordinator at Park Academy. “It has given us a structure to achieve our aims in PE and sport. The teachers have appreciated it as much as the kids. It’s been invaluable, to be honest. 

“It’s given our PE lessons a real focus and has given the students something to work towards.” 

“The format has allowed us to really emphasise those key principles of competing, participating, enjoying yourself, and setting personal challenges – all the important things.” 

Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, said: “We have been encouraged by the number of secondary schools that have found our Virtual Programme productive. 

“Giving Young Leaders opportunities to perform roles in a “live” situation gets them thinking on the spot and providing creative, practical solutions to help their younger peers. This is what learning and leadership is and it’s excellent to see schools like Ladybridge and Kearsley embrace this opportunity.”