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Jumping in at the deep end

Why do a third of children leave primary school without basic swimming skills?

Posted by Hannah Vickers | September 06, 2017 | Sports & leisure

By Steve Parry, Chair of the Curriculum Swimming and Water Safety Review Group

Over the past year we have been investigating why almost a third of Year 6 pupils leave primary school without the basic swimming and water safety skills.  

To do this, we brought together representatives from across the education, physical activity and water safety sectors to understand the challenges that primary schools face in providing high quality swimming and water safety lessons.

What was reassuring, is the number of schools that are working together to give their children the best opportunities to learn how to stay safe in the water. We heard of local schemes that bring schools together to share transport, schools opening up facilities for those struggling with access, and some really great end of term Top-up swimming opportunities. There are a lot of schools going the extra mile to help keep our children safe.

But, we also heard of schools that are struggling to meet the criteria, or to even offer swimming as an option. This was the most concerning part – that some of our children are missing out learning these life-saving skills because of cost of transport or facilities, time out of the school day, or the confidence of teachers to take them swimming. 

I was genuinely shocked when research showed that almost a third of Year 6 pupils left school in July without the basic swimming and water safety skills. We wouldn’t allow this if we were talking about reading or writing, so why do we allow it when we are talking about water safety? 

I was genuinely shocked when research showed that almost a third of Year 6 pupils left school in July without the basic swimming and water safety skills. We wouldn’t allow this if we were talking about reading or writing, so why do we allow it when we are talking about water safety? 

One of the key areas of concern for the Group was the lack of requirement for schools to report on their swimming and water safety achievements. This means that, despite it being in the national curriculum, there is no national reporting mechanism. Not only does this lead to a lack of understanding for the child, their parents and secondary schools, it also means there are no consequences if schools do not help their pupils to reach the required standards.

There are also issues with costs and training. On average, it costs a primary school £80 per child to teach them to swim. In my mind that’s not much, but I don’t have to worry about balance sheets at the end of the school term. That’s why one of the recommendations is for government to support a national Top-up Swimming programme.

We have also highlighted the need for Government to fund specific training for school teachers and teaching staff so they feel more confident delivering lessons. As well as upskilling teachers and making lessons more effective, this will help to reduce pool-hire costs.  

In all, the Group identified 16 recommendations to support primary schools improve their swimming provision. We all have a responsibility to make sure our children understand how to stay safe in the water, so these recommendations involve commitments from everyone involved: government, schools, parents, the national governing body for swimming, facility operators and water safety charities.

Having the opportunity to be able to have fun and enjoy the water safely is one of most important benefits of learning how to swim... For some children, school will be the only place they can access swimming lessons, so it is vital we do not miss the opportunity to teach all young people about water safety

Having the opportunity to be able to have fun and enjoy the water safely is one of most important benefits of learning how to swim. For some children, school will be the only place they can access swimming lessons, so it is vital we do not miss the opportunity to teach all young people about water safety and how to swim. And by that we mean all children – no exclusions based on ability, disability or economics.

We have a real opportunity to change the way swimming and water safety is delivered in schools. If we do it right, we will not only be helping future generations to stay healthy and active, we will also be providing a lifetime of opportunities to enjoy swimming and hundreds of other water-based activities.  

Steve Parry is Chairman of the Swim Group’s Curriculum Swimming Water Safety Review Group. In 2016 the Group was asked by Government to submit an independent report setting out recommendations for improving curriculum swimming and water safety. The report can be accessed here.

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