Why do some schools manage to include pupils with special needs in PE, while others struggle to make these children feel they can take part?
In the long term, the key is to find out what pupils can do, and then to make the most of the flexibility of the curriculum to meet their needs.
Physical education is not about teaching specific sports - it is about developing pupils' physical mobility, co-ordination, balance and manipulation skills.
Teachers need to move away from planning around the areas of activity (dance, gymnastics, games and so on) to focus on the four aspects of the national curriculum: acquiring and developing skills; selecting and applying skills, tactics and compositional ideas; evaluating and improving performance; and knowledge and understanding of fitness and health. This makes inclusion in PE much easier.
It is important to provide activities in which all pupils can succeed.
Don't underestimate the abilities of pupils with special needs - emphasise what they can do, not what they can't.
Alison Coates, a teacher at Langer primary school in Suffolk, soon learnt to overcome any preconceptions about the physical abilities of a boy in a wheelchair in her Year 6 class.
"When the children were going to do their Cycling Proficiency, to avoid drawing attention to Nathaniel's disability I talked to him at the end of the school day, rather than giving him a letter in front of the class. It turned out he had been riding a bike since he was 4 and he went on to pass the course with flying colours."
On the class's outdoor and adventurous activities residential trip Nathaniel took part in everything - archery, fencing, climbing, caving, orienteering, swimming and quad-bike riding. He also became a popular playground activity leader, teaching younger children from his chair and developing his own skills through modelling.
"Being used to everyone helping him, it gave him huge self-esteem and confidence to finally have the chance to help others," says Coates.
Some mainstream schools with special needs pupils have found it helpful to work in partnership with special schools on PE projects. This gives them insight into inclusive practices and helps raise expectations of what disabled pupils can achieve.
ONE CLASS, MANY NEEDS
Every class, whether it includes pupils with special educational needs or not, has pupils with a range of abilities - and all of them should be able to make progress in every lesson.
It can be useful to provide:
* modified activities - a challenge can be made easier or harder to suit various needs;
* parallel activities - pupils use rules, structures and equipment to suit their needs. For example, in a net games lesson, some pupils might play with short tennis equipment, while others play polybat (an adapted version of table tennis);
* included activities - where everyone takes part in the same activity but different conditions apply to some pupils;
* separate activities - where some pupils' needs mean they take part in a different activity to the rest of the class.
Alison Coates has used all of these approaches. "Wherever possible, we modified activities slightly so that Nathaniel could join in," she says.
"He has a sports wheelchair and played games like basketball with the class, following the wheelchair version of the rules. He had to stay indoors on cold days, so we set up separate activities in the hall with his support assistant and a few other children. At other times he took part as coach or referee."
Pupils at Arthur Terry school, a mainstream performing arts college in the West Midlands, regularly dance and perform with pupils from Wilson Stuart school, a nearby special school.
Teachers include all pupils in lessons by encouraging them to dance using whatever parts of their bodies they can. Dance movements can be built up from a standing position, a seated position, or on the floor, and pupils explore ways of moving each other within dances.
Pupils are encouraged to translate the teacher's instructions according to their abilities. While some pupils move from side to side and jump, their disabled classmates may move their eyes from side to side and raise their head.
With some ingenuity and planning, many pupils with special needs can learn alongside their classmates using just the aids they rely on in everyday life.
Games such as tennis and basketball have already been modified for wheelchair players. Large, brightly coloured balls with rattles or bells inside are available for pupils with a visual impairment. The resonance of live music can help pupils with a hearing impairment enjoy dance.
Combinations of tactile, verbal, musical and visual stimuli can help pupils with a short attention span. And teaching assistants can help in many ways.
Simple solutions are often best. For example, when pupils at Beacon Hill, a special school in Suffolk, struggled to remember gymnastic sequences, teachers made symbols that could be stuck to a Velcro strip.
Reminded of the sequence, the pupils' confidence and the quality of their work improved.
MAKING THE GRADE
Pupils can be assessed in a range of ways under the national curriculum for PE. The challenge is to choose the method that give pupils the best opportunity to show what they can do.
For pupils with special needs, assessing evaluation, officiating or leadership can help them demonstrate skills that are difficult to show in performance.
Beacon Hill decided that GCSEs in PE weren't right for its pupils. Margaret Nichols, a teacher, says: "We wanted to give our pupils the opportunity to realise and extend their ability, and decided the best way to do this was through the Junior Sports Leader Award. All our Year 11s have gained the award and their self-esteem has grown as a result. Through learning how to teach skills, the quality of their own skills has increased. It's about focusing on ability, not disability."
A CD-Rom entitled Success for All: An inclusive approach to PE and school sport is available from the Department for Education and Skills. Email: email@example.com. Reference number DfES05042003
Crichton Casbon is adviser for PE at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority