Keep to dry land and survive summer

14th July 2006 at 01:00
As a very weak swimmer - so weak that I am for all practical purposes a non-swimmer - I shall take simple steps this summer to avoid threats to what is nowadays called my health and safety. I shall not go in the water.

I may occasionally go on boats as long as the weather is calm, the vessel seaworthy and the lifejackets accessible.

Otherwise, I shall stay on dry land, where I prefer to be anyway.

I have no statistical evidence, but I suspect that gives me an above-average chance of surviving the summer. At least half the holidaymakers who drown every year seem to do so either because they have overestimated their own abilities and swum out of their depth or because they have put to sea in fragile craft and rough conditions.

Fishermen, it is said, do not learn to swim, so ensuring they are never lulled into false security. But I have no evidence for the truth of that either.

So should secondary schools be required to teach swimming? This is one of those issues where I call upon the shade of the late Lord (Eric) James, once head of Manchester grammar. He would listen patiently to a proposal for the absolute necessity of schools teaching this or that subject and then ask quietly: "What would you leave out to make way for it?"

In sport and PE alone, there are so many demands on schools - for football, cricket, tennis, athletics, gymnastics, dance, etc - that exercise of one sort or another could easily occupy half the week.

Sports raise particular problems, because many schools lack the necessary facilities on site. Only 2,000, for example, have a swimming pool. As any teacher knows, getting groups of children from one place to another involves considerable investment of time, energy and money.

Of this, lobbyists are always quite oblivious.

But when you have as detailed a national curriculum as we do, the decision to omit a subject is taken as a signal for schools to neglect it completely. So it is with swimming, which the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has dropped from new draft programmes of study for key stage 3 in order to create "more space for individualised learning".

Various lobbies warn of "potentially fatal consequences", while newspapers publish stories, always plentiful in summer, of children drowning in rivers or lakes.

I wonder how many of them would have been saved by school swimming lessons.

My own limited capacity to stay afloat owes nothing to two years of compulsory visits to the local public baths. I eventually learned a rudimentary technique from a sympathetic relative.

Most children will learn swimming quite easily, often from their parents.

Four in five meet the national curriculum target for 11-year-olds, of being able to swim 25 metres. Ministers have announced that the others will get intensive two-week courses; if trials are any guide, 57 per cent will then catch up. This seems a perfectly sensible idea.

No doubt further intensive courses can be given to the remaining 43 per cent. No doubt, too, children should ideally learn to swim far more than 25 metres, and the new QCA guidelines do not prohibit schools from offering the opportunity. But it would be cheaper, less time-consuming and almost certainly safer to impress upon them the importance of checking tides and currents, wearing lifejackets on boats, and so on. There is a limit to what schools can and should do.

As for the teachers, I hope they will ignore the holiday advice of my fellow columnist, Anthony Seldon, to "try something that scares you".

It is all very well for him; Wellington college can readily fill vacancies if half his staff have drowned by September. State schools are not so blessed. So enjoy your break but, particularly if you teach maths, physics or another shortage subject, please follow my lead and stay out of the water.

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