Changing attitudes towards inclusivity and SEND in school sport

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Social exclusion and rejection are typically labelled as a form of bullying in school policies. However, on playgrounds and sports fields we still see exclusion of young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), based on traditional stereotypes and perceptions of ability.

While reading this article, I implore you to consider your own journey as an educator and to question whether personally or collectively we are creating the right environment to give every child the chance to “end up being first”.

        When we pick teams in the playground, 
        Whatever the game might be, 
        There’s always somebody left till last 
        And usually it’s me.

        I stand there looking hopeful
        And tapping myself on the chest, 
        But the captains pick the others first, 
        Starting, of course, with the best. 

        Maybe if teams were sometimes picked 
        Starting with the worst,
        Once in his life a boy or girl like me 
        Could end up being first!

                   (Picking Teams, Allan Ahlberg)

“Sitting on the other side of the inclusion fence”

In 2013 I wrote a dissertation charting my personal journey from a talented junior sportsman, to a PE teacher, Sports Development Officer and most recently a Director of Sport and Deputy Head of a Special School.

As I had grown up with no family or friends with special educational needs or disabilities, I had been ignorant to the need for inclusive physical education. Like many others, fear of the unknown had led me to pass the buck on this important issue during my early professional career.

Now, as manager of a Lead Inclusion School for the Youth Sport Trust, I have “jumped the fence” – so I promote inclusive practice in physical education and sport locally, regionally and nationally, through CPD aimed at colleagues who might otherwise struggle to grasp the concept of inclusion.

London 2012: a catalyst for change

The London 2012 Paralympic Games set out to "inspire a generation" to choose sport, regardless of ability. LOCOG's diversity and inclusion ambition was to, "use its power to inspire change and embrace difference".

For example, LOCOG declared that the design of the Olympic Park was “Paralympified” – unlike the facilities provided by previous hosts. That meant starting with disabled people’s access needs and working backwards. The result was a set of world-leading facilities for both disability sports and non-disabled sports.

My research across the school sport network in Merseyside in 2013 found that there had been an immediate impact: the public had been inspired by London 2012 and felt more aware of disability sport. London 2012 was able to act as a catalyst for change by addressing physical and social barriers, raising awareness of disability sports and engaging more young people in the opportunities available to them.

This summer, London was again responsible for pushing disability sport in the right direction as the London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships saw 250,000 tickets sold – compared to just 15,000 tickets sold in Doha in 2015. At least 90,000 of those tickets were sold to school pupils, and more than 1,000 different schools were in attendance. This was thanks in part to the championships’ official education programme, Starting Blocks.

Barriers to participation

Unfortunately, growing awareness about the importance of inclusivity in sport among educators and young people – both disabled and non-disabled – does not always translate into action or opportunities.

It’s apparent that barriers to participation still exist. These barriers might include a lack of available opportunities in specific regions, a problem requiring strategic investment and training to properly address. And in my experience some schools are still hindered by old-fashioned views about inclusivity which urgently need to be updated. It’s important, for example, that trainee teachers and sports development students are aware of a differentiation tool called S.T.E.P (Space. Task. Equipment. People) and the Inclusion Spectrum.

Encouragingly, pockets of inclusive practice are expanding. In recent years there have been excellent examples, including Project Ability, Unified Sport, Inclusive School Games formats, Top Sportsability, i-PE inclusion training and the Inclusive Health Check for schools and County Sport Partnerships.

Moving forwards

During my research on Merseyside in 2013, when reflecting on the impact of London 2012 on inclusivity in sport, I concluded that society as a whole needs to learn how to better value and appreciate difference, particularly in the area of sports inclusion.

Have we seen much progress in the four years since then?

It certainly seems that more people of all generations are aware of the aims of the Paralympic movement and the “yes I can” mentality that surrounds it. This year, for example, Jacob Steinberg argued in the Guardian that, “London 2012 introduced the wider public to the delights of disability sport and… after the success of Rio 2016, the idea of disability as somehow less authentic no longer holds water”.

However, effective inclusion at a grassroots and school sport level is a long path towards an ultimate goal. Recent news stories about budget cuts for disability sports and the complex topic of re-classification for para-athletes show that we are still on that path – and there is still a long way to go before awareness translates into real change for SEND pupils.

Are we as educators still missing the point, and inadvertently ensuring that the playing field is not yet level? Are we still unfairly “picking teams on the playground, whatever the game might be”? And what more can your school do to ensure sport is inclusive for all?

Find out more

For more information and resources to ensure physical education and sport is fully inclusive at your school, check out:

  • Get Set – official youth engagement programme of the British Olympic Association and British Paralympic Association
  • Youth Sport Trust – excellent work on special education needs, including its Inclusion Spectrum
  • School Games – its Inclusive Health Check is a great tool for schools


Dan Keefe is currently a Deputy Head teacher and Director of Sport at Clare Mount Specialist Sports College, Wirral, Merseyside. Dan has a First Class Degree Honours from the University of Birmingham in Sport, Social Policy and Management and a PGCE in Physical Education from the University of Bath.

Over the last 20 years he has worked in both education and sports development and has a Masters in Advanced Educational Practice with distinction from Liverpool John Moores University, and also has his NPQH (Headteachers) qualification.