How to make sport fun for all pupils


What do schools need to do to ensure that PE is inclusive and open to all learners?

For those who have a disability or disorder which can isolate them from their peers, an inclusive education can offer the springboard from which they can reach their full potential. The Government’s SEN policy, Removing Barriers to Achievements 2004, along with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, gives pupils with SEN greater rights to a mainstream education to address this issue. Although the coalition’s emphasis on inclusion may not be as extensive as the Labour Government’s, the previous SEN policy makes many good recommendations which are expected to also form part of the SEN Green Paper, due out this autumn.

The policy states that schools must provide an education that meets the needs of every child and, with one in five children in the UK having an SEN, it is fair to expect that every teacher will be a teacher of a pupil with special educational needs. With this in mind, mainstream schools are being instructed to make every effort to personalise education for all learners, and must plan ahead for providing an inclusive education for future pupils across the curriculum. In addition to planning to meet pupils’ needs, PE teachers also need professional development opportunities and training that allow them to access the best inclusive practice.

The benefits of PE are clear for all pupils; exercise, as we know, is good for us, helping to develop co-ordination, control and movement, motor skills and improving fitness levels in general. Aside from physical factors, PE is also invaluable for teaching pupils how to work individually or as part of a team, developing qualities of fairness, dedication, self-expression and building confidence and self-esteem. These are all qualities that we would like our children to develop and they can be particularly important for SEN pupils, but, of all the subjects taught in school, PE can often be the most challenging for these vulnerable young people. A subject that is traditionally about athleticism, and in which competition is large factor, is one which learners with additional needs or disabilities can find isolating.

Improving access: the first step towards inclusive PE

There are a number of steps that schools must take to make facilities accessible under statutory guidelines, but these, while crucial, are not enough to guarantee inclusivity. For PE to be truly inclusive, the range of activities needs to change to reflect the abilities of all pupils. This is the real challenge; the term SEN is an overarching one, covering a range of difficulties from sight or hearing impairment to disorders such as autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For this reason, in order for PE to be inclusive for all, the activities must be wide-ranging enough to cater for everyone whilst still presenting a challenge to all pupils. The SENCO will be a useful conduit for information regarding the specific needs and abilities of a pupil with an SEN, but teachers can also discuss possible activities with parents to gain a greater understanding of the physical parameters of the learner. A critical factor in promoting engagement in PE for pupils with an SEN is to build on their existing skills base. Self-confidence is key to successful engagement and crucial to getting the most from PE and sport.

For those with physical difficulties, especially at a young age, activities where the first steps are simply for learners to get involved, be it a playground game or an action song, can be very useful. This first step towards involvement is an important one, leading to increased confidence and a willingness to take on other activities and tasks. For pupils with emotional, behavioural and social difficulties (EBSD), lessons based on outcome – which pupil completes the activity the fastest – can lead to feelings of frustration and cause conflict. Basing the lesson on individual performance can be very helpful for overcoming this difficulty. Having an SEN does not, however, rule out team sports. If outcomes are based on effort, good sportsmanship and effective or improved performance, it is possible then to reward individuals with points that can count towards a team’s total, as well as using praise for positive reinforcement. If playing team sports, however, an important point to consider is the team selection process; this can be a fraught moment in sports lessons for any child, so it is important not to use a selection process that may leave the pupil with an SEN the last to be selected.


Teachers can adapt and modify the different types of equipment to make PE and sport more inclusive. Using different types of resources for the visually impaired – balls that are different sizes, textured or fluorescent – can be very useful. Other adapted resources include soft play areas, larger targets, shorter distances and adapted bikes, all of which will appeal to a wide range of pupils. When sourcing products to use in inclusive lessons, trade shows can be a valuable way of finding out more about resources and receiving free product training. They also provide good opportunities to find out about specific SEN initiatives from government and other agencies,

For those with severe movement difficulties, the swimming pool can offer greater freedom of movement and for severe SEN pupils, the use of physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and mobility programmes are great ways to encourage movement and exercise. Schools that lack the necessary facilities to offer a variety of activities that appeal to all can look at other appropriate resources in the local community, such as sports centres, bowling alleys and dry ski slopes. The main aim is to make use of all available resources to provide a variety of activities for all pupils in your class.

Making facilities user-friendly for all

To ensure that all pupils can use facilities, it may be necessary to consider:

  • wheelchair access to (muddy) playing fields. Use mats at doorways to minimise the amount of mess made by wheels
  • appropriate lighting in the gym/hall/studio, with the facility to screen out bright sunshine which may create blind spots for pupils
  • how to reduce the confusion caused by multiple markings on the floor for pupils with cognitive difficulties or colour blindness
  • access to the swimming pool
  • having netball/basketball boards with adjustable heights/widths
  • a range of equipment, including different types of balls
  • signage to help children find their way between changing rooms/gym/sports field
  • making sure that changing rooms have pegs at different heights and an area where a teaching assistant could discreetly help out with changing
  • accessible toilet facilities with handrails and other suitable adaptions
  • ensuring that the school sports kit has the flexibility to meet the needs of pupils with disabilities.

Adapted activities

There are many, often well-established, adapted sports activities which have been developed to meet the specific needs of people with disabilities and SEN, including:

  • goalball (striking or fielding) for visual impairment
  • boccia (similar to French boules) for cerebral palsy sufferers
  • table cricket (striking or fielding). Suitable for all
  • zone hockey. Suitable for all
  • sitting volleyball or net/wall games for wheelchair users
  • wheelchair slalom (athletics)
  • target cricket for learning difficulties
  • polybat or net/wall games for those with physical difficulties
  • wheelchair dance
  • wheelchair football
  • wheelchair gymnastics
  • yoga.

An inclusive ethos

When working towards this inclusive approach it is important to ask yourself questions such as: “How can I change this activity to suit the pupil?”, “How can I modify or adapt this task?”, “How will I assess the physical activity?” and, perhaps most important of all, “How will I ensure my lesson is inclusive?” It is questions such as these that form the bedrock of inclusive practice.

PE for pupils with an SEN can require a sea-change in expected outcomes; activities should be adapted so that perceptions of success and failure are not conditioned solely by simple win or lose criteria but instead emphasise goals that are achievable for every pupil, allowing each child to challenge and push themselves within their own physical boundaries. The principle that PE – whether sport, dance or other activities – is for everyone should be woven into the fabric of every sports lesson. The ethos should be that success is about individual progress and sheer enjoyment as well as winning. Ultimately, every success should be valued and celebrated. When these principles are in place, the challenge of making PE inclusive becomes an incredibly rewarding undertaking, helping to change perceptions as well as lives.

Further information

Lorraine Petersen OBE is Chief Executive Officer of nasen, the UK professional association embracing all special and additional educational needs and disabilities:

For further information about inclusive sport, visit:

Guidance and support in meeting the needs of pupils with SEN and disabilities is also available from sports development officers employed by both local authorities and national governing bodies of sport.

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