Panathlon’s Virtual Programme continues to provide a crucial outlet for children with disabilities and special needs to get active, even after the easing of Covid restrictions and the return of our calendar of external competitions.

Our in-school activities enabled sporting competition to take place safely and inclusively during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. Since restrictions have been lifted, schools are continuing to enjoy the benefits of holding on-site competitions.

In Enfield, north London, Sports Development Officer and Advisory Teacher for SEN and Dance, Marion Coram-Ware, has taken Virtual Panathlon to new heights by helping to organise inter-school Panathlon sporting competitions held live via Zoom.

They give pupils a sense of connection they have otherwise missed out on through the pandemic and the thrill of representing their school and competing against peers with similar abilities, whilst protecting those who are still unable to mix outside of school.

In mid-January, Marion hosted a live online boccia competition between four schools in Enfield. A fifth school was unable to join in at the time, but played later in the week and submitted their scores to Panathlon afterwards. All competing teams received Panathlon certificates and medals.

After staff in all schools have accessed the Zoom link, Marion welcomes them and leads a warm-up (“It’s a strange experience doing it from my own spare room!” she admits). The Panathlon Event Leader will attend and sometimes one of our parasport ambassadors will join in to motivate and inspire the children.

Marion explains: “Each school mutes their own cameras but we’ll leave ours on and almost do a running commentary, calling out encouragement and saying, ‘Good shot!’

“The children love seeing themselves on screen. We do a celebration where they are all given medals and certificates. It’s really reaffirming for them.

“I think that one of the few positives out of Covid is that things have become possible for those who wouldn’t necessarily usually get to join in – and Virtual Panathlon exemplifies that.

“It’s really important at the moment that children get to see other children even though they’re not in close contact. It just gives that feeling of connection. They are a global classroom.”

As well as boccia, pupils in Enfield have enjoyed virtual new-age kurling, table top cricket, and a (non-Panathlon) dance programme.

Panathlon’s calendar of external competition has returned – and now our virtual offer sits alongside it as an additional, complementary option which get pupils active, engaged and competitive.

Marion makes the point that on-site activity suits those with certain disabilities much better. “I ran a boccia tournament a couple of years ago and we had a school enter whose pupils had ASD. For them, it was too loud, too spacious and they were very distressed. Doing it virtually makes sense as they are familiar and comfortable with the environment and can cope much better.”

In-school Panathlon competitions have other knock-on benefits too, as Marion explains: “As they take place in the classroom or assembly hall they aren’t necessarily led by the PE subject leader. Class teachers who might have limited PE training get wonderful activities to do. It gives them good motivation and training in a ‘hidden’ way. It’s best practice happening right under their noses.

“From the point of view of getting their pupils active and involved, it’s something teachers can plug into without being a headache for them at all. It’s giving the children something that’s different. It’s obviously great for SEN pupils but it can be done with a mixture of mainstream children as well. It’s a fully inclusive activity.”

For those who are able to leave school premises to compete in Panathlon’s renewed calendar of external competitions, virtual activities offer new horizons and the chance to represent their school locally or regionally.

“It offers the chance to go into an exit pathway, which is very exciting for them,” states Marion. “It really motivates some of the schools. But for those whose pupils can’t leave the site, virtual is a great alternative. It just works.”

Tony Waymouth, Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, stated: “Although Covid restrictions have eased, Virtual Panathlon retains an important position on our competition calendar. It is as beneficial and relevant now for staff and pupils as it was during the lockdowns, offering an accessible and inclusive way of getting SEND pupils engaged in competitive sporting experiences.”