Panathlon’s Virtual Programme gave 45,845 children with disabilities and special needs access to physical activity in 2020/21 – despite the ravages and restrictions of the pandemic. 

We launched our Virtual Programme at the start of 2020/21 to replace our usual calendar of external competitions which had to be cancelled due to Covid-19.

As the virus meant pupils couldn’t come to us, we acted swiftly to take Panathlon to the pupils, creating a programme of activities and competitions that could be run safely in school – and which could be participated in simultaneously by pupils isolating or shielding at home

Despite the lockdowns and ever-changing regulations, the programme was an astounding success, drawing universal praise from staff and pupils at the 583 participating schools across 41 English counties, North Wales and Northern Ireland. 

Of the 45,845* pupils who took part, 35,194 participated in virtual events, 6,992 took part in in-school competitions led by visiting Panathlon staff, 2,140 were Young Leaders (older pupils internally trained to officiate and guide their younger peers during competition) and 1,519 took part in live events via Zoom, including inspiring Q&A sessions with Panathlon’s patrons – Paralympians and international para-athletes. 

Programmes launched under the Virtual Panathlon banner included multi-skills (indoor and outdoor), new-age kurling, ten-pin bowling, swimmingfootballcricket and tennis. We upskilled school staff in leading these activities through simple videos, instructions and scoresheets. Schools were able to compete internally or against local schools by recording, registering and comparing scores. Some even organised live competitions via Zoom with athlete commentary, warm-ups, action coverage and trophy presentations! 

The programme’s impact was immediate and hugely positive. As one teacher, Sarka Viehoof at Heritage House School in Buckinghamshire, said: “It has offered something fresh, accessible and different during times when our lives were under a lot of stress.” 

The positive ripple effects of the programme within schools and on individual pupils were many and varied. School staff expanded their skillsets and knowledge of SEND sport provision, several schools embedded the activities within their curriculum, used the activities in their end-of-year sports day and started after-school Panathlon sports clubs. 

Virtual Panathlon

At a time of so many unwelcome changes to school life, Panathlon was able to be a consistent factor across the school year for children, teachers, support staff and parents. The in-school (and at-home) delivery enabled whole schools to take part and Panathlon even extended into other areas of the curriculum (e.g. pupils designed and made mascots to support our patron Nathan Maguire at the Tokyo Paralympics after he’d met thems on our live Zoom Q&As). 

Such has been its success, we are now certain that a blend of virtual and face-to-face external competitions will be our delivery model going forward as Covid restrictions ease. 

Looking ahead to 2021/22, we have already had enquiries from 44 of the 45 Active Partnerships about staging events in their areas and we have expansion planned in North Wales and Northern Ireland. We’ve held discussions with five major Academy Trusts, are working towards a new programme in West Wales and are looking to reinvigorate SEND provision in rural and disadvantaged areas. 

In addition, using the learning from the last year we have conducted testing with a view to developing and enriching the content of our programmes in several ways. We will be building the cross-curricular aspect through pre-event activity sheets which work on maths, English and art. We’ll also be using our Patrons to raise pupils’ awareness of the School Games values: passion, self-belief, respect, honesty, determination and teamwork. These initiatives will continue to widen Panathlon’s impact beyond simply participation in sport. 

Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, Tony Panathlon, commented: “Over the course of the pandemic, we have given schools the opportunity to choose from a wide range of activities and to implement it in a way that suits them. 

“The options are so plentiful and flexible that they can be easily adapted to suit ever-changing coronavirus restrictions. That flexibility has been crucial to getting thousands of SEND students back outside, staying active and enjoying sport and physical activity which is adapted and delivered in ways that many of them have never experienced before.” 

It’s fair to say 2021/22 has been a year like no other. It has not been easy, but our agility and quick-thinking has enabled us to reach far more pupils at their time of greatest need, upskill staff, train more Young Leaders, enrich school life, reduce isolation and raise the profile of inclusive sport – all at a time when many other providers have found the restrictions so inhibiting. 

*The number of pupils entered into the various activities within the Virtual programme was actually 55,150, although in the event 9,305 of those were unable to participate, principally due to reasons relating to Covid-19.