The re-introduction of Panathlon’s external swimming galas has been warmly welcomed by schools who are seeking to address issues of increasing concern for their pupils during the pandemic.

Although many sports have seen participation hit massively by Covid-19, swimming has suffered more than most due to draining of school pools, time, expense and the inability to secure lesson time in the dwindling number of local authority facilities.

Swim England have warned that most primary school children will be unable to swim a 25m length by 2025. Further research shows 84% of schools identified a decline in children’s physical fitness since the lockdowns and two-thirds thought pupils had gained excessive weight.

Oftsed chief Amanda Spielman highlighted wider concerns, warning that schools’ cutting of sport provision, trips and after-school clubs risked prolonging the “loss of social skills” caused by lockdowns.

It is for all these reasons that school staff were hugely relieved and thankful when Panathlon staged its first external swimming galas for just under two years in late November and early December, with three in quick succession at the London 2012 Aquatics Centre.

>> See a full gallery of images from the events at the London Aquatics centre here >>

The first of these, for SEND children from schools in Southend, saw us launch our new ‘Discovery’ gala format. Taking the learning from our in-school Virtual Swimming programme, we adapted the content of our ‘traditional’ swimming competitions, introducing skills challenges (rather than races) to suit pupils who lack skills and confidence in the water.

For SEND children who are not yet proficient over 25m (either because they have never experienced swimming or their skills have lapsed over the pandemic), our Discovery format is a priceless platform to experience the thrill of a team event through a series of skills challenges that boost their water confidence.

After such a long period without such experiences, the importance of socialising, being part of a team and competing face-to-face in an external venue cannot be underestimated.

The reaction of the 35 SEND pupils from Southend schools at the Aquatics Centre told its own story. Many had not left the school gates for a sporting competition for almost two years. For some SEND pupils from mainstream schools, it marked their ever first external swimming experience.

“All the different activities were well thought-out and ensured fun but also challenge for our children,” said Sonny Young from Richmond Avenue School in Southend at the Aquatics Centre.

“The organisation, positive atmosphere from everyone and the world-class venue ensured an unforgettable experience. As one of our pupils said, ‘I feel like I can do anything now!’”

We were delighted to hear that Richmond Avenue have now entered a forthcoming ‘traditional’ Panathlon gala (featuring races as well as water-based challenges) in January, thus building a pathway for pupils to step up their skills and confidence.

Darlinghurst Academy, who were crowned our very first Discovery gala winners, gave similarly positive feedback.

PE Subject Leader, Andy Felton, said: “The children loved every moment, not just because it was a day out at a great venue but because the races had been well thought-out, inclusive and perfectly run. One of my pupils told me it was the best day of his life. It’s the kind of moment I wish I could bottle! I cannot wait to enter this again next year.”

The event also held immense value for the Young Leaders who guided and officiated the young participants through the challenges.

“Our students left very inspired and motivated to go into coaching,” said Curt Mansell from South Essex College. “They said how they felt valued and a big part of the event. These experiences are priceless for us.”

The first ever Discovery gala was organised in partnership with Active Essex. Gill Newlyn from their inclusion team said: “All children had additional needs but did not need to be able to swim a great distance to take part, and this was what made the event so special.

“Boys and girls who enjoy being in the water could do fun activities competing against other schools. Whether they were racing up the pool with a noodle or trying to gather as many floating ducks as possible, the sheer enjoyment on their faces said it all!

“For many of them it was the first time they had represented their school and you could see how proud they were with their medals and certificates. The South Essex College Leaders were brilliant. They supported the children in the most caring ways showing great understanding and empathy whilst helping to provide the fun and ‘buzz’ of the event.”

Five more swimming events have been organised with Active Essex for January and February 2022, including three in the Discovery format and two in our traditional style.

Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer Tony Waymouth said: “Out first ‘Discovery’ event was a tremendous success and we’ve already had demand from other London boroughs wanting to give SEND pupils an opportunity that is pitched at the right level to allow them to discover a love of the water.”

Panathlon thanks Pentland Brands for their support with our Virtual Swimming programme through the lockdowns and the re-launch and additional format of our external swimming provision into 2022.