Thanet Wanderers empowering children and young people through special educational needs and disabilities sessions

Fun and exercise at Thanet Wanderers SEND sessions

By media student Polly Foster

Since 2022, Thanet Wanderers Rugby Club has made a remarkable transformation in the lives of children and young people following the launch of SEND (Special educational needs and disabilities) sessions.

The club uses the power of sport to build confidence and provide opportunities for youngsters aged five to 19 to learn the core skills of rugby.

The sessions take place in 6-8 week batches at the Thanet Wanderers rugby clubhouse from 5pm-6pm on Tuesdays. They are run by head coach Mario Garcia, alongside Andy Bull and Vicky Flower.

The premise of the sessions is teaching young people with special needs the fundamental skills of rugby, such as catching and passing, and basic tag rugby for the older members.

The club incorporates a fun, safe environment for the members, enforcing safety while still holding elements of a classic rugby game. This is done through a no-contact form of the game and the use of tag belts during competitive rugby.

The opportunities remain broad for a range of ages, due to separate groups for Under 12s and over 12s, allowing a targeted experience for every child.

The club is continuing to fundraise for the SEND sessions to pay for equipment, coaching costs and providing food for members after the sessions. The next fundraiser will be on April 6 at the clubhouse and will help to pay for an upcoming rugby day with other children with special requirements in Coventry this June.

Media student Polly Foster, spoke to Wanderers development director, team manager and fundraiser Andy Bull to find out more about the sessions and why they are so important:

Tell us about you?

My name is Andy Bull, I am a graphic designer who was born in London and moved to Thanet nine years ago with my young family and dog Snoopy. I am currently the Club Development Director at the rugby club and Team Manager of the U14s team.

Do you think having children plays a part in your passion for fundraising for the SEND sessions?

Joshua enjoying rugby

Yes, I have five children, two have flown the nest but we still have three boys at home. Andrew who is 13 years old, Noah who is 16 and Joshua who is 19 years old.

Joshua has Down Syndrome and attends Foreland Fields School, a special needs school in Ramsgate. My interest in fundraising really started after Joshua was born and to raise funds for the Down Syndrome Association I ran the London marathon twice and helped to run the local Downs Support Group in Greenwich.

What are SEND sessions?

The sessions run for an hour and concentrate on teaching the core rugby skills such as catching and passing. The children are split into two age groups, the under 12s and over 12s.

The sessions for the younger children are very much game based making sure they are having as much fun as possible. For the older children we start to bring in the basics of tag rugby and start to introduce them to the principles of teamwork. Unlike regular rugby, and for the safety of the children, there is no contact or tackling allowed and any competitive rugby is played using tag belts.

When and where do these sessions take place?

We currently run the programme in 6 – 8 week batches. They are on a Tuesday from 5pm to 6pm and then all of the parents and children go into the clubhouse for a well-deserved dinner cooked by the club’s kitchen.

The plan is to incorporate the programme into the general day to day running of the club so that the SEND programme actually becomes a regular Sunday morning session alongside the other mini and junior sections. That will allow the SEND programme to be delivered for the whole season rather than in the individual programmes that we do at present.

Who runs the sessions?

The head coach is Mario Garcia (pictured), who also coaches in the local primary schools for the club. He is supported by myself and Vicky Flower, who runs the Director of the Community section of the club. And then we have the amazing support we get from the girls and ladies sections and other volunteers who are there week in week out to support the children.

Why did you decide to do the sessions?

After moving to Thanet I was looking for sport for the boys to take part in and found Thanet Wanderers. They both enjoyed their first session and now play for the U16s and U14s, a side that I help to coach. My interest in the club increased and I soon joined the committee currently holding the office of Club Development Director.

The responsibilities of the office really encompass improving the club’s current offering and making sure the club has a defined plan for the future.

Part of this role was to help run the Schools and Community programme which puts coaches into the local schools, introducing pupils to rugby in those schools that would not traditionally play rugby.

James Green ran the programme at that time and with his professional experience as a sports teacher at a special needs school and my personal experience as a father of a son with special needs it seemed a natural progression for the programme to start to cater for children with special needs.

What would you say are the main benefits for the young people?

There are the obvious health benefits of engaging in exercise which are well known. However the benefits for our children go far beyond that as in some cases this is the only organised sport that the children are able to engage with.

Many of the parents that I have spoken to have told me stories of their children trying to join other mainstream sports but due to their challenges they have not been able to engage fully and so have drifted away.

There is also the added benefit to the parents of being able to chat together and compare notes. At one session we had someone come in and give advice to the parents on accessing local services which was very popular.

Why are you so passionate about fundraising for the club and sessions?

I will tell you a quick story which really clearly explains why I have such a passion for this programme. We had one boy turn up to a session quite early on in the programme.

We do have the parents register their children so that we can prepare for any challenges they may have and this particular parent mentioned their son’s lack of confidence at joining in with others.

He actually joined in pretty quickly to the games we were playing but I was worried when I looked over and saw his mum fighting back tears on the side line. I walked over and asked her what was the matter and she said ‘that is the first time I have ever seen my son catch a ball’. It wasn’t long before I was sobbing next to her.

Because of the lack of sporting provision that is in place across Thanet for children with special needs, those moments make it essential that we not only deliver the existing programme but also look to engage with other local clubs so that we can start bringing a county wide SEND community together so that these children can start playing competitive rugby against other clubs.

Why does the club need to fundraise?

At present the main costs involved in running the programme are around buying the equipment, covering some coaches costs and the food after the sessions.

We also supply free Hoodies and T Shirts for the children and there is always a rugby goody bag at the end of every programme.

However, the costs are about to increase with the exciting news that the club has been invited to enter the Wooden Spoon International Tag Rugby Festival in Coventry on June 22.

The club has entered an U15s and over 15s team with mild to moderate learning difficulties. The teams will be travelling to Coventry on the Friday returning on the Sunday. Wooden Spoon is the children’s charity of rugby and will be offering grants to help towards some of the costs but there will be a big funding hole that the club will need to fill to enable the children and their parents to take part.

Beyond that is the ambition to grow SEND rugby alongside the other clubs in the county and this will need investment to make this a success.

Fundraiser and club details

The April 6 fundraiser lunch, raffle and auction – followed by 1st XVs final home match of the season versus Ashford – takes place from 11.30am with lunch from 12.30pm. Find tickets here

Thanet Wanderers are based at St Peter’s Rec, off Callis Court Road in Broadstairs.

To find out more about the club go to

Or email [email protected]

Polly is a creative writing and journalism student at Canterbury College currently undertaking work experience with The Isle of Thanet News.