It’s a scary fact that more than half the parents in the UK don’t think their child could swim to safety in open water if they were in trouble. And yet swimming seems way down on the list of priorities of most schools, and a fair few parents, too. In countries such as Australia, swimming lessons are mandatory for all schoolchildren, and most of us remember our weekly outings to the local pool with our classmates. So what’s changed?
This summer, the ASA (Amateur Swimming Association) warned that more children would drown every year unless something was done about current measures for teaching children to swim. In a report, the ASA said that half of seven to 11-year-olds in England, some 1.1 million children, cannot swim the length of a standard pool. And only 2% of schools surveyed deliver the government’s recommended 22 hours a year of swimming lessons. The report said Ofsted should focus PE inspections on swimming as “it is the only sport that can save lives”.
Some 407 people died from drowning in 2011, according to the most recent figures from the National Water Safety Forum. Of these, 47 were aged under 19. “These numbers could increase in future if the current issues with school swimming programmes are not addressed,” warned the report. But still nothing seems to be being done. Schools will sadly blame budget constraints on the lack of money and staff available to facilitate the required measures. But what excuse do parents have? Again, it comes down to time and money.
Taking your child swimming is no mean feat. It is rarely going to be a spur of the moment occasion as anybody who has grappled with a nappy while a shivering baby wriggles across the only changing bay in the leisure centre can testify. And that is after the chaos of getting said child ready for the excursion, and getting them back home again. For the sake of twenty minutes in the pool, there’s a lot of palaver in the planning that sometimes makes you think it’s just not worth it.
But it is worth it. So says Chantal Burgess, a teacher at Hillingdon Leisure Centre in west London. Chantal has been teaching people of all ages to swim for almost 15 years, and is passionate about it getting back on top of the priorities of parents. “By taking your child swimming you are keeping them fit, building up their confidence and teaching them a new skill,” she says. “But most importantly, you’re teaching them a lifesaving skill. And the thing is – it’s great fun. Most kids love to splash around with their friends, explore the pool with mum or dad, and show off what they have just learnt. Even the tiny ones – we take them from six months – have great fun splashing around and being held by mum or dad while we all sing nursery rhymes. They grow in confidence every week and it’s a great way for parents and babies to bond – baby loves the pool, but also loves the security and protection that mummy or daddy gives by holding them close. It’s a great way to spend time with your child.”
And it’s not just the obvious skills that are developing when a child goes to their swimming lesson. Chantal adds: “The thing is it is really useful for speech development – we sing nursery rhymes with the young ones and are constantly talking and explaining what’s happening. It helps with socialisation skills and co-ordination – I have taught lots of children with special needs and it is incredible to see how it helps them. I truly believe swimming lessons can help children in so many ways, it breaks my heart to think there are so many missing out.”
And while local leisure centres seem to cost the earth for us adults, you’ll find that most of them are pretty reasonable when it comes to kids. At Hillingdon, our little boy gets 12 weeks of lessons for £60, so that’s £5 a week for him and me together. To me that’s a small price to pay for a weekly hour of fun and the knowledge that we’re doing that little bit more to help him develop a skill that could save his life, or even someone else’s.