A well-planned sports event with professional athletes can be a great opportunity for young pupils to try new activities. David Bocking reports on inter-school competitions for special schools.
To throw a javelin four metres may not be in quite the same league as Dame Kelly Holmes's double Olympic gold, but the face of five-year-old Hushayn Rafiq matches the expression of Britain's most famous Olympian as she crossed the winning line.
It isn't easy for Hushayn, in his wheelchair, to hold the javelin, but as he sends it flying through the air, the applauding spectators can see all the determination of a Holmes, or an Amir Khan or a Steve Backley.
School sports co-ordinators Dawn Wood and Bea Rushforth, who both work in special schools in Sheffield, feel that their pupils should have the same opportunities to take part in competitive sports as anyone else.
"It's a right," says Bea. "But they often don't get the chance."
This year, the two teachers, from Talbot and East Hill schools, organised sports days for the city's primary and secondary special schools, which were held at the English Institute of Sport's training centre in Sheffield.
The choice of venue - used by Holmes, Backley, Khan and many other international sportspeople - made it clear to the pupils that they were in for a real sporting experience.
"The kids have been getting fitter because of the training, and they get a real sense of achievement when they take part, " says Jason Fletcher, a sports trainer from the local council who worked with many of the pupils before the events.
"These guys appreciate activities like this as much as anyone else, and, when they get a gold certificate, it's just as important as it is for someone like Lynford Christie."
Dawn Wood says some of her pupils can gain more in an afternoon at a venue such as the English Institute of Sport than they might gain in a month of classroom work.
Assessments of the sports days have shown clear evidence of increased self-esteem and confidence in participating pupils, says Dawn, as well as improvements in fitness, co-operation, teamwork and understanding of the sports themselves.
"Our children often love sports, but quite often don't have the money to join a club or go to a local sports hall," says Dawn. She and Bea add that, for many children in special schools, after-school recreational activity can often amount to watching television, playing on the computer or eating, which makes physical activity at school even more important.
They both believe that the extra time given to school sports co-ordinators is invaluable to plan events for special needs pupils. The best way to organise inter school events, they suggest, is to involve outside experts from the start. They may well be able to point teachers in the direction of funding or specialised help to run events.
"Usually, part of the criteria for a sport's governing body is to encourage participation by special needs students," says Bea. Often, there are variations of sports to suit children with different abilities - tag rugby, for example.
And rules can be adapted on the day: you can strip football down to putting the ball in the net and stopping play when it goes out, says Dawn. Then, when the children get the hang of things, she says, you can start to include the offside rule.
And don't get too concerned about sports kit, says Bea. "If all our students had to get changed into PE kit and trainers, nothing would happen.
As long as it's not dangerous, for me it's more important that they take part, regardless of what they're wearing."
Even if you haven't got an international Olympic venue next door to your school, it's worth the effort, says Bea. "It means so much to our students.
They talk about it for weeks."
"I had an email from a teacher after one of the events," says Dawn. "One of her pupils said he'd had the best day of his life."
SPORTS DAYS MADE EASY: TIPS FOR ORGANISERS
* Find a venue - indoors if possible, if not try to find an indoor alternative nearby where you can offer something if it rains. Check toilet and changing facilities, make sure there's space for wheelchairs and spectators, and a suitable area for lunch. If possible plan a chill- out area for children who might find it all too exciting. Consider a PA system for large venues.
* Plan the sports you'll be including. Contact the governing bodies (see Sport England website) and ask what they can offer: for example, grants to stage the event, referees, or experts from local clubs.
* Contact your local education authority's sports development officer who may help with staff to run the event, equipment or local contacts.
* Get advice from teachers and sports co-ordinators from special or mainstream schools who've run tournaments before.
* Carry out risk assessment and make sure equipment is suitable. Many sports companies now offer a range of equipment for pupils with special needs, or some primary-age sports equipment can be used.
* Plan a clear but flexible timetable. Be careful to accommodate individual schools' transport times to and from the venue. Consider an opening ceremony and allow time at the end for medal certificate presentations.
Ask local celebrities to present medals.
* Consider two separate parallel tournaments to accommodate children with different abilities, but ask teachers to plan their squads before the event.
* Invite parents as spectators.
* Make sure information is available on the sports, including local clubs who can offer further development for competitors - details can be sourced from governing bodies or local authority sports co-ordinators.
* Make sure clothing is safe for the sport in question, but don't worry too much about kit. If necessary ask for donations of trainers from parents, colleagues, etc.
More Information: Sport England For information and contacts for sport governing bodies www.sportengland.org