More than a third of children left primary school this year without the basic swimming skills that could save their lives, a TES survey reveals.
Rising costs, pool closures and an overcrowded timetable have made it harder for many primaries to teach swimming effectively, it shows. One Devon school reported having to rely on the goodwill of parents and teachers to transport pupils to swimming lessons in private cars.
The survey of 224 primary and junior schools in England and Wales found no improvement in pupils' swimming skills in the past three years, despite promises of action from ministers.
A similar survey carried out by The TES in 2003 found an average of three out of 10 pupils had failed to master personal survival skills such as floating. This has risen to 35 per cent this year, suggesting that every year, almost 200,000 pupils miss out on skills that could save their lives.
Drowning is one of the most common causes of accidental death among children, with about 50 fatalities each year.
By age 11, pupils in England are expected to be able to swim 25 metres, master a range of strokes, learn survival skills and complete swimming and floating challenges related to speed, distance and personal survival. The law requires all key stage 2 pupils who have not reached these national curriculum standards to take swimming classes.
The survey reveals big differences between the opportunities on offer to pupils across the country, with Wales doing well and London poorly.
It suggests that the Government's school swimming charter, launched in January 2004, has so far done little to improve the swimming skills of primary pupils. The charter provided practical advice for schools in organising and planning lessons and was accompanied by swimming and water safety training for PE teachers.
Yet the proportion of primary leavers unable to swim 25 metres unaided has risen from a sixth to one in five, or about 110,000 pupils, since 2003.
In June this year, Jim Knight, schools minister, promised a further pound;5.5 million for lessons for pupils still unable to swim 25 metres by the end of key stage 2. The Government estimates 83 per cent of pupils are able to swim competently by age 11.
Fewer than half of schools currently provide remedial lessons for pupils who fail to reach the expected standards, the survey shows.
Swimming was dropped from the six PE options for 11-to 14-year-olds in draft changes to the secondary curriculum published in June.
One in six adults cannot swim, according to a survey commissioned by Tesco.
Kate Hoey, MP former Labour sports minister, said: "The TES has done a great service in once again showing opportunities for children to learn to swim at school are severely restricted.
"It is not good enough, that despite it being a compulsory subject, so many children are missing out on the potentially life-saving skills and life chances swimming offers."
A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said: "Swimming lessons are compulsory for primary school children, leading to 83 per cent of pupils being able to swim competently by the age of 11.
"However, we recognise that some children may need extra support - that is why intensive lessons have been introduced for children who are unable to swim the 25 metres required by the end of key stage 2."
David Sparkes, Amateur Swimming Association chief executive, is pressing the Government to use funds for school building to replace pools. "About 10 per cent of school pools close each year. It's a massive problem," he said.