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Special Olympics GB’s incredible Motor Activity Training Programme

Angela’s Lydon persistence and skill – and an army of volunteers around the country like her – are helping Special Olympics’ Motor Activity Training Programme (MATP) go from strength to strength. Here, she discusses the programme's success and changing lives through sport.

MATP team

The West SILC (Specialist Inclusive Learning Centre) is a large five site special school in the west of Leeds. The school is divided up into departments including a complex and multiple learning needs department for primary and secondary students with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD). Sarah Riley, the complex needs department lead, first heard about Special Olympics 14 years ago when the Special Olympics World Summer Games were held in Ireland. At that time the West SILC hadn’t been formed and what is now the West SILC main site was a standalone special school called Milestone.

In September 2012 I took up my post at the West SILC at our primary partnership site and the following February our new complex needs department opened at our Farnley Academy Partnership. Initially our secondary students moved, and then myself and the remaining complex needs students moved in September 2014 (and me with them). Once I had established my class, Sarah asked me to take the lead on Special Olympics, a project she hadn’t been able to work on and that is where our journey began.

There is little if anything written about PMLD students and PE but as a PE subject lead and class teacher for students with PMLD, I believe passionately that these students have as much right to high quality PE as any other.

This can mean very different things for students with PMLD but that doesn’t mean PE lessons don’t have a place in their curriculum. Often it is felt that PE for PMLD students is covered by Hydrotherapy, Rebound Therapy or Physiotherapy but these are therapies and therapy is not PE. PE promotes physical activity: it includes whole class work and a high percentage of activity throughout the session. A class Hydrotherapy session may take an hour but changing and then waiting for their 20mins in the pool does not constitute a quality PE session.

I began considering developing Special Olympics as a PE project for our PMLD students. I began the process of becoming an associate club with the Motor Activities Training Programme as our sport. A representative of Special Olympics came out to deliver an introductory workshop and we felt we had discovered a programme that slotted perfectly into our timetable as a PE provision for our students.

The Motor Activities Training Programme is a Special Olympics programme specifically for athletes with PMLD. MATP runs in 8 to 12 week training periods which culminate in an MATP Challenge Event. During the training periods athletes work on motor skills that are pertinent to the individual and their overall motor development.

This fitted perfectly into our ethos of a personalised curriculum. All our students have Personalised Learning Plans (PLPs) linked to their Education and Health Care Plan Outcomes. In line with our status as a MOVE centre of excellence, every student has physical targets as part of their plan. These targets fitted perfectly into our MATP session plans. Soon each class was delivering MATP within their timetable for an hour a week as our PE provision.

Once the weekly sessions were embedded in the timetables of all for classes my next job was to organise our Challenge Events. The Challenge Day is an event unique to MATP - it has a specific structure that provides the athletes with an opportunity to represent their school and showcase the skills that they have developed over the training period.

Each event includes an athlete parade, the reading of the Special Olympics Oath and a warm-up. The main content of the event is each athlete coming out in front of their audience of supporters to demonstrate the level of skill they have achieved.

This is followed by a whole group cool down and then closing ceremony that includes medal presentations for all participating athletes. This format provided an amazing opportunity to celebrate our students in a way that they had never been celebrated before. It also provided an opportunity for parents to come to an event to celebrate their children and see others also celebrating their children for their genuine achievements.

We got off to slow start with our challenge events at school. They initially started out as Come and Try sessions. I would set up a range of activities and the students would come participate and enjoy the activities provided for them. We invited other special schools from around Leeds to a couple of these events to show them what we were doing and what they too could do with their students. It was around this time that my youngest daughter started school and as I worked four days a week I found myself with a day a week to fill. I mentioned this in a discussion with the MATP Development Manager Niamh Reilly and she suggested I use that day to work with her as a Development Officer developing MATP nationally for Special Olympics.

I took the role as it seemed a natural progression and at the same time became an MATP tutor. This really moved things on with our club. I began training teachers and support staff at other schools in Leeds. The club name changed to MATP Leeds and we started holding MATP Leeds Challenge events.

By this stage I had mastered the planning and delivery of a Challenge Event and we were able to hold what has become termly MATP Leeds Challenge Events, including up to 30 athletes from 4 special schools. The events have been attended by parents, who have loved the atmosphere, and the celebration of their children and they have also provided a fantastic forum for the development of relationships across schools.

I secured a development grant from Special Olympics for the development of MATP Leeds. It provided equipment to deliver the Challenge Events this included a PA system to save my voice, medals to award at the events, a case for our portable mobile hoist so it could go with us for events where the hall we used wasn’t equipped with tracking and I was able to issue small equipment grants to the other member schools.

In 2015 we became aware of an amazing opportunity for our students and MATP. The Special Olympics National Summer Games was due to be held in Sheffield in August 2017 and MATP athletes were going to be fully included for the first time. MATP had been featured at the previous games in Bath but this time the athletes were to be fully included in the opening ceremony at Bramall Lane, have the opportunity to stay overnight in a hotel next to the ground and then represent their region in a Challenge Event at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield.

The planning began. I had two major roles in the planning process: I was a Development Officer directly involved in the planning and execution of the event and all that involved and also the Head Coach of MATP Leeds. After I attended a test event in Sheffield in August 2015, we were determined that our students would get to the games.

MATP Leeds were assigned 10 places for the games. The other schools engaged in the club felt they would not be able to attend so it fell to us at the West SILC.

Sarah was determined that we would get as many students as possible to the games. We identified nine students to attend and began the planning for fundraising. We held a sponsored Slam Dunk at school. Where Students were sponsored for the number of baskets they scored. The response was amazing, and we raised over £1000 which was a massive chunk of the costs for the Games entry and the accommodation. I held regular coffee mornings with the parents of the students attending. They were all so excited about the games one parents described them as a “shining light” for them, something they were so looking forward to.

We planned, we fundraised, we put in the application, we ordered the regional tracksuits and organised their delivery and we made sure all information was sent through with regards to the needs of the students for the accommodation. I worked with the other clubs nationwide in my Special Olympics role to support all the other MATP athletes and their application and attendance to the games.

When August 2017 came round the support from school staff was outstanding. Every class teacher from the complex needs department attended as well as two support staff. Sarah organised the MATP Leeds delegation with her usual incredible attention to detail and dedication. She took all the large equipment down the day before the event and then drove back to Leeds to return the next day in the school people carrier with a student, staff and more equipment. I was already in Sheffield attending briefings.

The day of the Opening Ceremony arrived. I spent the morning running a Come and Try Event for local participants with PMLD at the EIS then I returned to the hotel. The atmosphere in the foyer and bar and restaurant was amazing. The West SILC delegation had all arrived and settled in and were buzzing, it was fantastic to see everyone. There were a couple of late arrivals, last minutes tickets to sort and many plastic ponchos to distribute against the rain. I went across to the holding room with our students and then left them to go into the stands. It was strange not lining up with them, I was there as a Special Olympics Development Officer not a class teacher.

The rain was pouring down but this didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits. Then the parade began and it was time for the Yorkshire and Humber Delegation to enter. There right at the front leading their regional delegation into the stadium were the West SILC students from MATP Leeds. It was a proud and emotional moment. My colleague and MATP Development Manager Helen was in the stand next to me, and she leaned over and said “That’s what it’s all about”!

The following day was the Challenge Event. We had nearly 30 athletes from four regions attending the event. MATP Leeds led the athlete parade into the sports hall and they all did us proud. Our athletes showcased what they could do with determination, hard work and humour. The atmosphere in the viewing area with the friends and family was incredible. I had the privilege to stand and watch a student from my class represent his club, school, city and region as a Special Olympics athlete at National Games, I cried! Jim Carter (Carson from Downton Abbey) as a patron of Special Olympics came to see our event as part of his tour of the EIS and VIPs from sponsors and Special Olympics Europe Eurasia presented the athletes with their presentation medals. It was a fantastic day.

It has been an incredible journey from the first discovery of MATP to representing our region at the National Summer Games. We have established high quality PE for our students and other students with PMLD in Leeds and we have provided an incredible experience for our students and their family and friends that they will never forget. Changing lives through sport can apply to everyone!

For more information on MATP – you can contact Angela Lydon  -