British PE teacher helping the visually impaired is shortlisted for Varkey prize

Imaginative methods to adapt sports for students with sight problems

A British physical education teacher who came up with innovative methods to help visually impaired children engage in sports has been shortlisted for a $1 million international prize.

David Swanston, of St Vincent’s school in Liverpool, made it to the final 10 out of 8,000 nominations and applications for the prestigious Global Teacher Prize funded by the Varkey Foundation and endorsed by Unesco.

Elliot Lancaster, a student at Keele University in Staffordshire, has also made it to the shortlist for the Chegg Global Student Prize, a sister award under which the winner will be handed $100,000 for their chosen causes.

The 24-year-old took over the managing of his family’s finances at the age of 15 and has since gone on to develop an app that offers people recycling tips and aims to reduce the number of contaminated items which can result in hefty fines for councils.

Both nominees spoke passionately about their respective fields and their plans to spend the cash if they are announced as the winners on November 10.

Mr Swanston said he uses different techniques and equipment to tailor assistance offered to each student according to their level of vision.

“A lot of the work I do is around adapting sport and physical activity for the visually impaired,” he said.

“We’ve been working on projects such as eye rugby, which is the development of rugby for the blind, so that’s considering rugby for a child or young person who has no vision.

“It’s looking at developing ball prototypes, electronics, using sounds and textures and mobility to make the game as inclusive as possible so ultimately, you don’t require any vision to be able to access the sport of rugby.”

Mr Swanston said it had been “humbling” for him to watch his students overcome their fears and lack of confidence, to be able to take part in group sports and even go on to represent their country at the Paralympics.

As well as increased mobility and an improved sense of security, children are able to engage more with their peers through sport, increasing their social skills and helps them expand their friendship groups.

“There’s a real increase in confidence,” said Mr Swanston, who also teaches art and geography.

“The most important thing for me is that we get children active and we get them engaged in sport and the benefits of that.

“We have young people who represent their countries.”

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson was among those who congratulated Mr Swanston on securing a spot on the shortlist.

"There can be no great schools without great teachers, and Mr Swanston's dedication to his pupils serves as an inspiration to all," he tweeted.

The teacher and his colleagues also run an initiative called Sightbox, which ships containers filled with sports equipment for the blind to schools in developing countries.

If he wins the top prize he plans to spend the cash on additional sports equipment for his school and to also support physical activity, horticulture and well-being programmes at the nearby Alder Hey Children’s Hospital.

Meanwhile Mr Lancaster said it was “humbling to be recognised alongside such amazing people” from around the world on the shortlist for the Chegg Global Student Prize.

His Utter Rubbish app has already delivered useful tips to more than 4,000 households in the area around Keele University, where he studies.

The postgraduate student said the idea came to him during a discussion with members of Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council while carrying out a work project for his undergraduate degree.

He was alarmed to hear that councils were being fined up to £200 per recycling bale if it was contaminated by food, dirt or other materials, with some authorities running up penalties of up to £500,000.

His invention offers “simple messaging” to people, helping them make practical changes that can have an “amazing environmental impact” and allow councils to save money and in turn use to in more meaningful ways.

“Now we’re scaling up and we’re working with a variety of councils across Staffordshire and being approached by other councils nationally,” he said.

“We’re doing some project work in Colombia, which has been going on for a while now.

“So, it’s fantastic to have such a level of interest and engagement on this and I’m just delighted to see where it’s going to go from here.”

Looking back on challenges during his teenage years, Mr Lancaster said he was glad he took the time to look after himself to ensure he was fit to help his relatives.

His grades slipped because of the amount of time he was spending sorting out his family’s finances and ultimately the situation took a toll on his mental health.

But after seeking help from a counsellor and extra tuition, he was soon on the way to third level studies.

“For me, my proudest achievement was actually getting to university,” he said. “There was a time when I didn’t think that was going to be an option for me, particularly with my grades being where they were doing my GCSEs.”

Ultimately, he said, the experience of taking charge of the family purse at such a young age inspired him to pursue a degree in accounting and finance “to be able to give me the skills to support others”.

Asked what plans he had in the pipeline if he is named winner of the prize, the student said he wants to set up a “sustainability student network” to offer funding, incubation and mentorship to get their bright ideas for social enterprises and inventions off the ground.

Lila Thomas, head of Chegg, praised Mr Lancaster and his fellow finalists for their “fighting for their future”.

She said despite the challenges the Covid-19 pandemic has caused, “this generation of students have shown the kind of resilience and creativity that give us all hope as we confront the towering challenges ahead.”

“The Global Student Prize has been launched to shine a light on their stories and listen to their voices. After all, it is their dreams and their talents that will light the path to a better tomorrow,” she added.

Dan Rosensweig, chief executive and president of Chegg, said the students who made the final cut are the “changemakers our world needs”.

“While many stakeholders are busy debating, these students are busy doing. Congratulations to all the finalists of the Global Student Prize,” he added.

Sunny Varkey, founder of the Varkey Foundation, said the stories of Mr Swanston and Mr Lancaster shine a light on the crucial role education plays in addressing challenges affecting all of society, not just students.

“Congratulations to David and Elliott for reaching their final 10,” he added.

“Their stories clearly highlight the importance of education in tackling the great challenges ahead – from climate change to growing inequality to global pandemics.

“It is only by prioritising education that we can safeguard all our tomorrows. Education is the key to facing the future with confidence.”

Updated: October 15th 2021, 9:57 PM