Panathlon’s second Essex Discovery Gala in as many days at the London Aquatics Centre was hailed as a “perfect pressure-free return” to swimming for SEND pupils after the ravages of the pandemic.

For the third time this academic year, primary schools from Essex got the chance to visit the prestigious London 2012 venue to experience our new ‘Discovery’ gala format, specifically targeted at children whose skills in the water had lapsed over the pandemic and those who had never been in the water ever before.

With adapted skills-based challenges which did not require previous swim ability (as opposed to our traditional races), staff and pupils gleefully embraced the balance of fun and competition – especially after the grim two years pupils have just endured.

“Due to lockdown, the children haven’t been able to swim because even the school pool has been closed. It’s one activity our children really, really used to enjoy,” said Andrea Griffiths from Thursday’s winners, Doucecroft School in Colchester.

<< See a full gallery of pictures from Thursday’s event at the London 2012 Aquatics Centre here >>

“They have been so low at times during the pandemic because they’ve not been able to access activities they enjoy and play with their friends. Putting them in the pool together, cheering and supporting each other is absolutely brilliant for our children.

“Swimming helps regulate the pupils’ behaviour and they get so much out of it, so to re-introduce them to it in a competition where they don’t have to swim 25 metres – they just get to leave the school premises and have some fun – is a big, big thing for them.”

Pupils from Hinguar Primary in Shoeburyness went home beaming with silver medals. Deputy Head and PE Lead, Catherine Attard, was also full of praise. “We have a couple of children who suffer really badly with anxiety and all I’ve seen is smiles, laughter and excitement all day.

“The activities weren’t stressful for them. There is no pressure. Even our non-swimmers were happy bouncing up and down and getting involved. It’s targeted so well for these children. One of them said to me, ‘I’ve not been in the water for ages’ and she now wants to know when we can go again!”

As she marvelled at the stunning domed venue, Bournes Green Head Teacher, Emma Goy, added: “This is the first time they have been out of school since the pandemic. It has been a difficult couple of years, so to break that by coming somewhere like this is brilliant.”

Bournes Green had never taken part in a Panathlon gala of any sort before. They brought several Year 3 pupils who hadn’t swum with the school since they were in Reception.

Mrs Goy added: “We’ve brought children with us today who have had fewer opportunities than most. Some have anxiety which has worsened due to Covid, but this has met their needs really, really well.

“Joining Panathlon is really exciting for us. It means we can group children from across different age groups. Their additional needs mean they can’t necessarily access external mainstream sport opportunities, so coming here and wearing the school badge on their t-shirt is really exciting.”

Eight-year-old Bournes Green pupil Oliver Knight said: “I loved going underwater. It feels really good to come here because I haven’t been anywhere in London before. Boccia and new-age kurling were cancelled because of Covid and I was really upset but now that we’re here I don’t mind!”

Austin Winstanley, seven, added: “I loved the treasure hunt best. I would give today 100 out of 100!”

Milldene Primary, from Colchester, had only competed in Panathlon’s virtual boccia before. “We’re always looking for opportunities to open up the menu!” said Head Teacher Susan Locke.

“We’ve deliberately brought pupils from Years 1 to 5 today because the Year 6s usually get the most opportunities in sport. This gala format enables us to choose a completely different set of children. They all have huge barriers and the majority certainly don’t go to private swimming lessons outside of school, so this is huge.

“It’s not just the sporting activity that’s beneficial – it’s getting changed, looking after your kit, and getting to know other children outside of their friendship group. Chatting on the bus with children from different year groups will boost their confidence and language. It all translates positively back into the classroom.”

The event’s Young Leaders, who guided the pupils and officiated in the activities, were Year 9 pupils from William Edwards School in Grays. The experience was invaluable for their Sports Leaders Level 1 qualification.

Their PE teacher, Alex Joel, said: “Our school has provided Young Leaders for Panathlon for many years and pupils in years above always tell the younger one this is their favourite thing to come to. They develop a lot of confidence and they enjoy helping young children. Some of the children are initially petrified of the water and our pupils are the ones they cling on to! To be that trusted figure is a big responsibility but they have been excellent role models today.”

Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer Tony Waymouth said: “As a result of today’s event, school staff have told me they will include these activities in their own swimming lessons and want us to help them create an internal swimming gala at school. The impact of these events isn’t just about the day – it’s about changing attitudes and highlight to school staff that swimming is something children of all abilities can do.”

Thank you to our sponsors Pentland Brands for funding our swimming programme, and to Active Essex for their support in organising our activity across the county.