Over the years, pupils have had some very different experiences of disability and school sport
How clearly do PE teachers, even trainee PE teachers, understand the needs of all pupils, regardless of ability? And to what extent are PE teachers in mainstream schools supported to be able to include young disabled people within the PE curriculum?
A 2011 survey by Whizz-Kids, featuring hundreds of disabled school children, revealed that a third felt they did not participate in PE lessons as much as their non-disabled peers. Of those, 33 per cent felt this was because of their impairment; for wheelchair users, it was 54 per cent.
Training schemes for teachers and trainee teachers exist to support PE teachers in mainstream schools to provide a high-quality PE curriculum for all, to prevent disabled pupils from feeling excluded and improve their lesson experience. But what are the practical, on-the-ground experiences of pupils and former pupils?
In this article four disabled people, three of whom are wheelchair users, discuss their differing experiences of PE in mainstream schools.
Excluded by consent
Wheelchair rugby player and coach Martin Beddis attended a mainstream comprehensive in the mid-1980s. “I have cerebral palsy and when I was at school inclusion didn’t exist,” he says.
“Inclusive sport was non-existent. The school liked to put on PE classes in cross-country running, football, cricket, tennis and rounders. So no matter what the sport, I was not physically capable of participating.”
For Martin, whose participation in sport and physical exercise tailed off after school, only to be rekindled in later life, the consensus as he neared his O-Levels was that sport should play no further part in his curriculum.
“By the time it came to the final two years of High School it was agreed by all – the school, my parents, me – that whenever PE was on I would go to the library. For the final two years at school I didn’t bother turning up to PE lessons. No attempt was made to adapt PE for me, and the school in Barnsley itself wasn’t accessible.”
Such a lack of inclusion damaged his self-confidence at a time when his body, and disability, were still developing.
“At the time I hated it, being the only disabled kid in a school of 1,200.”
That sense of alienation and of difference affected Martin in the 1980s, but fast-forward a few decades and other disabled pupils are still feeling the same.
“I didn’t have a great time at the start of my school career, with fellow pupils not being very understanding of my disability and teachers not understanding that I could do sport, just in a different way,” explains Chloe Ball-Hopkins, a 19-year-old from Gloucestershire who attended mainstream secondary education in the 2000s.
“My impairment is muscular dystrophy; as I have got older it has affected me more and more.
“In my second year of secondary school I started to want to get involved in sport as a way of coping with my developing disability.
“I was 12 or 13 when I first tried wheelchair sports; I was in Year 8 at school. At that point I was still able to get up and out of my seat much more than I can do now. Other people at school struggled with the concept of someone being able to walk and also being in a wheelchair. I received a lot of comments at school from people telling me I could either be disabled or non-disabled, not both.”
Chloe says that that lack of understanding extended to teaching staff.
“My PE teachers, because they saw that I could get up onto my feet, assumed I could do sport just as well as everybody else, rather than adapting it for me. I was told PE worked in black and white, so someone who wanted things modifying was too difficult a concept for them.
“There were times when I was told to get up out of my chair and join in with things like gymnastics, hockey and so on.”
These days there are approximately 900,000 disabled children aged under 16 in the UK, seven per cent of the child population, and young disabled people are more likely to experience bullying.
This, sadly, proved to be the case for Chloe.
“If you’ve seen Little Britain, you’ll know the character Andy Pipkin, who uses a wheelchair but can secretly walk. I used to get called ‘Andy’ all the time, because I could still walk but I had to use a chair. I was a fake, an Andy, and I had a lot of online bullying through social media.
“If my teachers had helped me with my PE earlier, then some of the other issues that arose may not have. Ask anybody who is disabled who plays sport – it’s a really good coping mechanism. If my teachers had helped me, maybe the other stuff wouldn’t have happened.”
However, Chloe’s story is ultimately a positive one. Motivated to defy the teachers who told her sport wasn’t for her, and inspired by a day of wheelchair tennis experienced thanks to Active Gloucester, she took up tennis, basketball, track events and more recently archery.
“My passion for sport was always within me. My problem at school was confidence; my self-confidence took a knock and I hadn’t yet got my head around my disability, because it was evolving as I grew.
“Looking back on it it’s quite clear to me that my school wasn’t accommodating because they simply didn’t have the experience of working with someone like me. I had a rubbish time there but I hope, if nothing else, that they learned from me.”
Fortunately, the difficult experiences of Martin and Chloe are not replicated across the board, and both recognise that the current situation in terms of inclusive PE provision within mainstream schools is often much improved, thanks in part to development opportunities being made available to teachers.
Going the extra mile
Chris Greenhalgh, a wheelchair basketball, rugby and tennis player, attended a school in Bolton in the 1990s and, despite being one of a handful of disabled pupils, felt included and catered for.
“I stopped walking when I was nine or ten because I have spina bifida. I was always going to stop walking, and I was using a chair full-time by the time I got to secondary school.
“The school did a great job for me. When I first got there I don’t think they knew what to do with me; they had had wheelchair users at the school before, but no-one that wanted to actively take part in PE.
“Fairly soon after I started they managed to find a bloke to come in once a week and play some wheelchair sport with me. He wasn’t a teacher, but he came over from Southport to do one or two hours a week with me.”
Not only did the PE department at his school in Greater Manchester provide specialist staff to teach Chris disability sport, but teachers made other lessons accessible to him by altering their equipment and facilities.
“In terms of adapting lessons, my teachers were excellent,” Chris says.
“They would modify equipment for me; I remember them cutting down a hockey stick in the woodwork shed so that I could use it in my chair.
“I got the impression that they were learning about inclusive teaching alongside me. No-one had done it before at the school, so there wasn’t a more experienced member of staff that they could consult for advice.”
All this adjustment and encouragement reaped success; Chris secured a C grade at PE GCSE, developing into an international athlete and representing Great Britain at three different World Cups playing three different sports.
Now, at 32 years old, he continues to travel across Europe playing wheelchair basketball for Oldham Owls, as well as wheelchair rugby for Leyland Warriors.
Looking back on his school days, how does Chris regard his PE experience?
“At the time I didn’t notice what the teachers were doing for me. I felt like everyone should feel, that I had as much right as anyone else to do PE at school.
“But now that I look back I realise just how hard people fought for me to be able to do what I wanted to do. Looking back, I wouldn’t have become a sportsman without them.
“Everyone should have the same opportunities, and now things are so much better than they were. There is expertise and training out there for teachers to utilise. For teachers, it’s just about a willingness to adapt. Anything’s possible.”
That adaptability is at the heart of successful PE delivery. It is logical to connect the success of an accessible approach with the engagement of a disabled pupil within a class setting.
Finding a way
George Bollands, 22, has cerebral palsy and attended mainstream schools in Bedfordshire in the 2000s.
Happily, his experiences at secondary school broadly match those of Chris: in the main, provision for his needs was excellent: “Most of the time I had very positive experiences of PE and was able to join in most sports with the rest of the class.”
However, George concedes that for his school, his parents and himself, initially it proved a learning curve for all involved.
“We were taught rugby, a sport that due to my disability I absolutely hated playing. While my classmates were all participating fully, I was left either standing on the sidelines in the cold or being made to run lengths of the field by me teacher as an alternative activity.
“At times it got to the stage where my parents would be writing notes to my teacher excusing me from the lesson, or I would fake an injury, something that I never liked to do.”
However, as much as anything through a process of trial and error involving learning to accommodate George’s needs, the situation gradually improved.
“In my second year at secondary school, instead of playing rugby my PE teachers allowed me to join the middle group in the fitness suit which suited me better as it allowed me to participate in lessons at my own pace.
“As I progressed through secondary school I was fortunate to have the opportunity to go swimming and do rock climbing in my PE lessons, which I absolutely loved.”
As an example of working with the pupil and his parents to best cater for the needs of the individual, George’s is a strong example of what can be done and what impact inclusive PE can make.
So what can we take from George, Chris, Chloe and Martin’s stories? Accessible PE provision has improved considerably in recent decades, and with support and appropriate training school staff can expect to improve their knowledge and skill set.
This is perhaps best summarised in the words of George, as a recent school-leaver.
“I think every mainstream school in the country has a responsibility to provide accessible PE, as well as making sure teachers are aware that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to teaching children sport.
“It is vital that every school child, with or without a disability, should have the same opportunities to participate in PE lessons at school, to gain positive experiences of sport which will enable them to be active throughout their entire life.”
Jimmy Smallwood is Communications Officer at the charity the English Federation of Disability Sport: