Schools fail to take the plunge

As many pupils fail to meet national targets, teachers blame performance pressures and funding cuts. Jon Slater reports.

WHILE Britain's swimmers gear up for the Olympics, many of our children are still failing to master even the most basic water safety techniques that could save their lives.

A survey carried out by The TES and the Central Council for Physical Recreation of 769 primary schools across the UK, found that thousands of 11-year-olds are leaving primary school unable to swim the length of their local pool - 25 metres.

Despite the fact that swimming is part of the national curriculum, the survey found that one in 20 schools does not teach swimming in lesson-time.

Even when swimming is taught, there are huge variations between different schools' provision.

On average schools take five to seven-year-olds swimming for 11 minutes and eight to 11-year-olds for 25 minutes a week. But in some schools children only get the chance to swim during one school year. The lucky ones swim for an hour a week throughout their primary years.

Many schools are frustrated by their inability to offer pupils more. A teacher at a school in Wales, where pupils swim for only one term, said: "The majority of pupils do not have swimming lessons or the chance to attend swimming clubs outside school hours. The only lessons they will receive during their educational career will be what they receive at school. The majority of them come from economically-deprived backgrounds. A term's worth of lessons is inadequate to fulfil the needs of these children."

Not surprisingly, given the differences in provision, there are also large variations in pupils' achievements. While there are no specific targets in Scotland, Wles and Northern Ireland, the English national curriculum sets four targets which pupils are expected to reach by the end of primary school. Pupils should be able to: swim unaided for 25 metres; pace themselves in floating and swimming challenges related to speed, distance and personal survival; use recognised arm and leg action, lying on their front and back; and use a range of recognised strokes and personal survival skills.

Despite the lack of targets in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland pupil achievement is similar to that in England.

As the chart (below) shows, one in nine schools fails to teach imore than half its pupils to swim for 25m and only a quarter manage to get all their pupils to this level.

Schools do even worse when it comes to teaching children to pace themselves in floating and swimming. Almost one in three schools surveyed had less than half of its pupils mastering this basic skill.

The survey suggests that swimming has been marginalised by the pressure to improve academic results and by cuts in funding over the past two decades. The low priority given to swimming in some areas is shown by the fact that one in five schools does not even keep a record of pupils' progress.

But there does appear to be a will among most schools to do better. More than 80 per cent of those who responded believed that pupils who fail to meet the minimum requirements should be given remedial help but, again, many felt constrained by tight budgets and a lack of curriculum time.

As one teacher put it: "Swimming lessons, although very valuable and necessary, place an enormous burden on the school in terms of staffing and finance. They also eat into an already tight curriculum timetable."

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