Freestyle learning

This afternoon, I'm off to my local swimming baths. It's essential to keep reasonably fit to enjoy retirement, so I swim 40 lengths a week. This is very enjoyable, especially as I watch the antics of the classes from local schools who have lessons at the times I swim.

Today is Monday, and Mrs Johnson will be there with Class 5, who need to be constantly reminded about good poolside behaviour. Mrs Johnson repeatedly asks the children to walk carefully on the way to the changing rooms but they don't much care for that. They're excited, and they jostle and shove each other.

Last week, Danny pushed Lisa and the contents of her bag fell into the pool, narrowly missing me. Danny, a good swimmer, immediately offered to dive in and rescue everything, but Mrs Johnson pointed out that his clothes would be soaked and he wouldn't be allowed on the coach in that state, thank you very much, because it was a matter of health and safety. An attendant had to fish out Lisa's belongings with a net.

Tomorrow afternoon a class of secondary school boys will be there. As half of them have their lesson, the other half will be allowed to occupy themselves. Although they are competent swimmers, they prefer to congregate at one end of the pool, shouting to each other. Occasionally they'll leap on one member of the group and seemingly attempt to drown him.

They appear to occupy the middle of the pool only when I'm swimming there, usually meaning I'll receive an elbow in the ear or a knee in the side as I attempt to dodge them. They are surprisingly polite when they batter me, presumably feeling sympathy for the poor old gent gamely trying to swim a few lengths without expiring.

On Wednesdays, Mr Argent brings his class of nine-year-olds, three of whom are challenging. Eddie has anger management issues and is accompanied by a teaching assistant, with whom he always seems to argue. Last Wednesday, it took the combined efforts of Eddie's teacher, assistant and a pool attendant to contain him. As I glided past two pool attendants watching what was going on, I heard one say that if she was in charge of Eddie, she'd put him in the laundry bin.

Meanwhile, the instructor is helping the non-swimmers gain confidence by letting them use long foam tubes to keep afloat. I move past swiftly, as their control of the tubes needs refinement. But at least the instructor is kind and encouraging, constantly telling the children how well they are doing.

How different it was when I learned to swim. I recall with a shudder how Mr Coppin, our fearsome class teacher, would line us up at the side of the baths and tell us that he'd cane the last one to jump in. Children standing near the deep end stared at him in mortal terror.

We had precious little time to change after the lesson, either. Exhausted as we were, Mr Coppin would allow us just two minutes to be fully dressed, and many of us sat through the rest of the day's lessons in damp and clammy clothes.

But children were subservient then. These days, I suspect they'd just get Eddie to push him in the deep end.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England. Email:

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