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Go to great lengths for swimming

If a week is a long time in politics, then three years must be an eternity.

Yet 36 months since The TES last highlighted the shocking state of school swimming in England and Wales, ministers have failed to bring about an improvement. Despite promises of catch-up classes, a swimming charter and a water safety website for schools, our survey suggests almost 200,000 children left primary school this year without the necessary survival skills and 110,000 were unable to swim a single 25-metre length of their local baths.

Swimming is about more than the survival chances of a child who falls into a local river or canal, important though that is. A report published by the Department of Health last week predicted 12 million adults and one million children will be obese by 2010.

As Jamie Oliver has shown, children's health and obesity have moved sharply up the political agenda since 2003. Ministers have proved themselves anxious to jump on any football World Cup or Ashes cricket bandwagon. But there remains little recognition that, walking aside, swimming is the most popular participation sport in this country.

In England, swimming has become another casualty of the testing and target regime that Ofsted has warned leaves primaries devoting too great a share of their energy toward literacy and numeracy.

It is noticeable that Welsh schools, free from these constraints, top our survey both for children's achievements and the time devoted to swimming.

Nevertheless, there are cases of provision in Welsh schools being hit by rising transport costs and pool closure. As well as freeing up curriculum time, central government needs to work with councils to ensure every school has a suitable pool within reasonable travelling distance.

While it is up to councils to provide the facilities, central government must fund free swimming lessons. One of the great advantages of school swimming is that it delivers for rich and poor alike. The problems identified in our survey must not drown out that message.

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