THOUSANDS of 11-year-olds, perhaps as many as half, leave primary school unable to swim or are at risk in deep water.
As the Scottish Executive last week quietly slipped out its study on school swimming, delivering an upbeat message, a little heralded but far deeper investigation published last year by an Edinburgh University academic reveals a far more distressing reality.
The Executive found that more than a quarter of schools do not offer swimming and only seven local authorities offer it in every school. Its researchers conclude that "provision of swimming in Scottish schools is higher than perhaps expected due to the concerns over a decline".
But Win Hayes, a lecturer in physical education at Edinburgh University, who carried out a study of more than half of Scotland's primary schools (1,302), has come to quite different conclusions about the abilities of children in the water.
Paul Bush, chief executive of Scottish Swimming, shares her concerns and says Scotland is dipping well behind England in promoting basic survival skills. The key learning ages for children are 7-11, Mr Bush points out.
Ms Hayes's findings show that 17 per cent of schools which responded to her survey did not have learn-to-swim programmes.
Another 5 per cent of pupils in schools that did provide swimming were unable to swim by the end of P7, while observation visits revealed that a disturbing 40 per cent were classed as weak swimmers who would be out of their depth in deeper water.
Her study reveals that the common short-course approach in P6 and P7 often "results in pupils who are superficially 'able to swim' - ie they can get from a to b. However, if they are not competent in water out of their depth, if they cannot change direction, if they panic if their head goes under the water or they get splashed, they are not in fact 'swimmers' and they are not safe in water."
She argues that in six or even 12 sessions of 30 minutes many of the desired outcomes for swimming programmes cannot be achieved.
At the time of the Edinburgh University survey, four authorities - Borders, Aberdeen, Moray and East Dunbartonshire - had a policy of not funding primary swimming. Since the survey, additional cash has allowed Aberdeen to introduce 10 swimming lessons for P4 pupils while East Dunbartonshire has launched blocks of lessons for P5 pupils.
Ms Hayes found that education departments blamed the cost of transport, pool hire and staffing.
The Executive's survey, sparked by parliamentary pressure on Nicol Stephen, Deputy Education Minister, and himself a former schoolboy swimming medallist, shows that four authorities have lower than 50 per cent provision in primaries and secondaries.
"The authorities that provide this lower percentage tend to be in the more rural areas. Other barriers to making this provision were reported as lack of funding, time and transport," it states. Reasons could be shortage of facilities or long travelling times to the nearest pool.
Ms Hayes calls for an entitlement to learn to swim at an earlier age, probably in P4 and P5, than the current norm. This would eliminate the uncertainties of geography. The "combination of adverse conditions, large classes and teachers who are not properly qualified leads to some very poor quality provision that offers little to pupils".
Her study also found that extracurricular swimming, while promoted by more than 90 per cent of primaries, failed to pick up many enthusiasts. Only 11 per cent of schools offer out of hours swimming. Almost half (45 per cent) report that fewer than 10 per cent of pupils take part and two-thirds (67 per cent) say fewer than 25 per cent join in.
Paul Bush of Scottish Swimming said the Executive's report had nothing new to offer. "I am disappointed the Executive is not more proactive and that swimming is not a key target in the Sport 21 review document. If golf is, swimming clearly should be," Mr Bush said.
Scotland was doing relatively well with most children living 20-30 minutes from their nearest pool, but commitment was lacking. Mr Bush pointed out that in England the curriculum allowed enough time to ensure pupils could swim a minimum of 25 metres.
Charlie Raeburn, Scottish Schoolsport Federation chairman, described swimming as a core activity in physical education and a key to other water-based sports. It made a major contribution to good health as one of the best forms of exercise.
* Next week: Win Hayes writes on swimming as "a requirement of education".