No swimming allowed in phonics pools

26th October 2012 at 01:00
I'll teach you the essentials but you can't dive in, says primary headteacher Stephanie Gibson

Come with me, small child. Take my hand, and look over there, into the distance. You probably cannot see it very well, as you are small, but let me tell you about what is there. It is called a swimming pool. Can you see the myriad shades of blue and green dancing on the surface like jewels?

In a swimming pool, you can practise your swimming - a useful life skill that's also good exercise and lots of fun. You can learn to dive. You can jump in with a splash or play games. You can learn about how others swim. I hope this sounds tempting and something you would like to do?

Unfortunately, though, small child, I cannot allow you into the swimming pool until you have convinced me that you can swim. You will have to rely on my descriptions of what it will be like when you can swim, and these must sustain you as you learn.

There are many skills involved in swimming, and they are all important. You need to be able to use your arms and your legs. You need to have a streamlined body shape to help you speed through the water. You need to be able to put your face into the water and lift it when you breathe.

There are a number of different strokes, and people usually find that they are better at some than at others. They choose a stroke that makes the best use of their own strengths.

Some children learn to swim very easily. Some find it very difficult. There have always been arguments about the best way to teach children to swim. Arms first, or legs? Whole class or one-to-one? The pendulum swings back and forth as the experts decide first on one way and then another.

It has now been decided that one of these skills must be learned first and on its own and that you and all other small children must gain mastery of it before you are allowed to learn any of the others. This will be the law. It is my job to teach you. Let me tell you what we will do.

I shall be teaching you to breathe correctly. Since I cannot allow you to enter the swimming pool until I know you can swim, I shall use cotton wool instead. And as you learn about breathing through cotton wool, I shall allow you to stand on a little bit of cotton wool too, as I'm sure this will be good practice for you - but you will only be allowed to stand on the same width that you can already breathe through.

So each day, for 10 to 15 minutes or so, we will practise breathing through cotton wool. (Since breathing through cotton wool is pretty difficult, we will need to start working on it when you are 4. And if you struggle with it, we will simply practise harder and harder.)

As you get better at it, we can make the cotton wool thicker and thicker! And don't think for a minute that this won't be fun. I am assured that as long as I buy approved cotton wool, I can make your breathing lessons exciting and help you to feel a real sense of achievement as you get better at it. I will even sometimes show you pictures of real swimming pools and tell you all about them - but of course you will not be allowed to visit one yet.

Let me tell you something funny. Back in the day, we used to take children into the swimming pool before they had proved they could swim by breathing through cotton wool. This was, of course, when we foolishly thought we knew what we were doing - before greater minds than ours came along to show us The Way. We encouraged children to put their faces into the water and get wet. We held them up or let them hold on to the side of the pool while they kicked their legs and we let them wear arm bands or rubber rings to help them float until they could do it on their own. We claimed that these children could swim as we watched them whizzing up and down the pool - but when they were tested on breathing through cotton wool, they failed. So now, of course, we understand that they weren't really swimming at all.

So, small child, you should be grateful that we have all seen the light and realised the value of breathing through cotton wool. We know it will make you a better swimmer in the end, even though you will never have to breathe through cotton wool again.

Once you have achieved mastery of this skill, I will of course take you to the swimming pool and throw you in at the deep end, leaving you to sink or swim. I shall take no responsibility if you sink. I shall be confident in the knowledge that you are an expert at breathing through cotton wool. You cannot blame me if you don't know what to do with your arms and legs. I was only following orders.

Stephanie Gibson is a primary school teacher in Surrey.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today