For too long it has been too easy to marginalise disabled learners from the kind of sporting activity that we know they’d enjoy. Sam Perks has toured colleges in search of better practice. 

Taking part in sport helps to improve your health. It increases happiness and self-esteem, and it reduces anxiety and stress. It enhances educational outcomes: it improves attendance, behaviour and grades, and it boosts employability skills: confidence, communication and teamwork. The impact of participation in sport is even greater for those with a disability. 

One in six students in England has a disability or a learning difficulty – that’s more than half a million people. Too many of these do not take part in physical activity and sports. A new review by AoC Sport, funded by Sport England and the National Lottery, on the current landscape of physical activity and sport for disabled students has examined why this should be the case.

The four recurring barriers

I have travelled across the country consulting colleges, students and stakeholders to identify the barriers, attitudes and opportunities that help or hinder disabled students in taking part in physical activity and sport. I kept coming across four recurring barriers:

Workforce – college staff indicated they are not qualified, experienced or confident enough to deliver sport and physical activity to students with a disability. 

Time – staff time is ever decreasing and they do not have the scope to deliver more activities for disabled students. In addition, students’ timetables are at capacity and they do not have time to take part in physical activity during their curriculum.

Facilities – some colleges do not have any sporting facilities on site, while others do but they are in such demand that disabled students can never use them (especially during the exam periods).  This said, we would challenge colleges to think creatively about the use of space. Classrooms, dance studios and even corridors can be used to deliver activities to disabled students.

Attitude – sports and physical activity are seen as nice to do instead of as a necessity, so with the chronic funding and resource cuts in FE, sport is one of the first to be withdrawn.

A meaningful offer

As part of my job, I’m lucky enough to spend lots of time at colleges across England, and I see lots of ways in which they are thinking more smartly about how to deliver a meaningful sports and physical activity offer for their disabled students.

Grantham College uses the learners it has on sports-based courses to deliver activities and events for disabled students. The disabled learners benefit from additional opportunities to be active as well as mixing with their non-disabled peers, while the sport learners gain experience and volunteer hours for their courses – and staff have more time too, as they are not required to deliver the activities themselves. 

The ‘Ability counts’ ambassador programme at Newham Sixth-Form College provides the opportunity for disabled students to gain sports qualifications. Ambassadors learn core skills to help with employability, such as confidence, communication and how to lead activities. 

At Nottingham College, literacy and numeracy have been built into activities to showcase that sport and physical activity can improve their disabled learners’ education and increase its priority with their senior management team. For example, students play darts to improve their addition, subtraction and numeracy skills.

There is a growing proportion of learners with disabilities and learning difficulties in further education, and more needs to be done to ensure they stay active. As a result, AoC Sport has recently launched a new disability strategy for colleges, called ‘Active for college, work and life’.

AoC Sport wants to ensure disabled students have the same opportunities to be active as their non-disabled peers, and will support colleges and partner organisations to achieve this vision.

Colleges are an influential environment to reduce inactivity in over-16-year-olds and this is an invaluable opportunity to make a lifelong change.