A vehicle for ALL kids to have fun & feel good

By Pam Stevenson, Director of Delivery

After two years of teaching PE at Deeside High School I was becoming increasingly interested in Southern African politics; at the time, Nelson Mandela was incarcerated and the book ‘Black Beauty’ was banned there. So, in a rash moment I sent off my CV to a school in Swaziland that had a reputation for radical racial politics and found myself very quickly after that on a plane to teach girls’ PE!

I think there is a wake-up call in everyone’s life and this was mine for sure. The school had educated many of the African National Congress (ANC) leadership’s children and was a beacon of multi-racial education, but unfortunately its gender politics were archaic.

My first battle was when the girls weren’t allowed to opt for football on a Wednesday afternoon. The arguments were around safety and how the boys could practice effectively. I was to hear a lot more of this kind of thing when I began delivering inclusion training to mainstream PE teachers. Disabled children in a mainstream PE class! How will they play rugby? What will the impact be on the other children?

“Disabled children in a mainstream PE class! How will they play rugby? What will the impact be on the other children?”

As my battles grew more heated I left teaching to set up a voluntary project in Swaziland, working with disabled children and adults through sport. This was a complete change in direction for me and was my career path for the next 20 years. I was privileged to be able to experience such a wide and varied work programme and spent the next two years working in a school for the deaf, a school for children with learning disabilities and a mainstream school with lots of disabled children. I look back on these times with a mixture of pride that I had survived, regret that I wasn’t able to do more and knowledge that I was extremely lucky and honoured to have had such a life changing experience.

I remember pondering for hours whether it was a good thing for a child, who lived on the floor of the hospital, to have an hour in the hot baths, lots of cuddles and attention to then be returned to the hospital or whether this was cruel because it flaunted a life that was so far away from the one they were living. I ended up believing that a snippet of real pleasure was like food, a necessity in life and sport and physical activity could provide this.

“I ended up believing that a snippet of real pleasure was like food, a necessity in life and sport and physical activity could provide this.”

I returned from three years working in Swaziland with an eclectic mix of skills having had a chance to work with a massive variety of differently disabled people in a huge mix of sports. Arriving back in England I applied for a job, ‘Lecturer in Equal Opportunities in Sport and Leisure’ at a Further Education college and having returned from working with black, disabled women, I got the job!

I spent the next 20 years building up an inclusive department by employing disabled lecturers, embedding disability sport into most programmes and developing some specialist courses. In parallel I began to work nationally in the world of sport and inclusion. I initially immersed myself in all the inclusion courses out there and soon developed a nervous tic when anyone brought out a parachute or included throwing beanbags into buckets. Surely there was more to PE for disabled children than this?

These experiences did shape the next 20 years for me. During a weekly session, with sometimes 50 disabled adults and carers, I explored and created new and different games that were exciting, ruthless and sometimes highly competitive. Lots of which resurfaced a year later in the healthy competition aspect of Create Developments real PE.

I may have gone too far with ‘Tunnel of Death’ which involved running the gauntlet while everyone else hurled sponge balls, balloons and beach balls at you from close up. The challenge always was, “How can we adjust and adapt the environment so winning and losing isn’t dependent on physical skill alone?” This way, our winners can learn to lose and everyone else can feel the thrill of the win!

In parallel to my lecturing job I was beginning to be asked to train teachers in special and mainstream schools based on a philosophy that was to become known as, ‘The Inclusion Spectrum’. This approach gave deliverers of PE, sport and physical activity a framework to balance the individual needs of people in a group. At the time, it was a survival technique because I had so many different people within my own session. My collaborations with the lovely Ken Black who had been working on and developing ‘The Inclusion Spectrum’ resulted in the publication of the English Federation of Disability Sport training course, ‘Including Disabled Children In Mainstream PE’.

“This approach gave deliverers of PE, sport and physical activity a framework to balance the individual needs of people in a group”

While we were writing the course, Gerry Kinsella, a good friend and CEO of the Greenbank Project, suggested I deliver a workshop to highlight people’s perceptions about disabled children. Delegates were asked either, “What are the challenges of including a disabled child in a mainstream PE class?” or “What are the challenges of including a non-disabled child in a special school PE class?”

After years of delivering this workshop to teachers, students, disabled and non-disabled people the outcomes were always the same. When thinking about the disabled child everyone highlighted the institutional challenges – safety and equipment, how the disabled child would take part in traditional activities, how the class would be stretched and affected and the knowledge of the teacher. But when considering the needs of the non-disabled child everyone switched focus and highlighted the effect on the non-disabled child; how would they be stretched and challenged? How would they access appropriate sports outside of school? Could they be a leader? Would the activities be suitable for the child?

Of course both sets of challenges apply to both scenarios but I never tired of watching the light bulb moment when PE teachers realised that the disabled child in their class might need challenging and supporting with pathways in their chosen sport. It was another leap, that only a few were willing to make immediately, to considering whether the curriculum should include the children in the class or be bound by traditional sports because it always had been.

My passion for PE to provide a vehicle for all children to have fun, feel good, valued, supported and challenged has only very recently found a home. When I began working with my good friends and colleagues at Create Development we began to translate our passion and vision into a real and tangible support package for teachers that stayed true to this vision…real PE.

“…PE to provide a vehicle for all children to have fun, feel good, valued, supported and challenged…”