Swimming goes under

1st August 2003 at 01:00
Promises, promises. Fairly or unfairly, the Government is in danger of gaining a reputation for failing to stick to its word.

Labour's "record" school funding led to teacher redundancies. Despite ministers' repeated assurances that they are tackling the problems of truancy and poverty, unauthorised absence remains high and the educational gap between the haves and have-nots is still among the highest in the developed world.

Their explanations for these differences between rhetoric and reality have varied in their plausibility. But there is no excuse for their lack of urgency in tackling the shocking state of school swimming, first revealed by this paper three years ago. Close to a third of our children leave primary school each year without potentially life-saving skills. A handful of primaries feel unable to teach swimming at all, even though this is a legal requirement.

The Government's response? A taskforce that produced nothing more than a new website, and a few pilot projects offering remedial tuition to a handful of pupils. A school swimming charter is promised for the autumn but past form suggests that it will contain a lot of warm words and precious little of practical assistance to schools.

This is a scandal. Research shows that regular physical activity can lead to higher academic achievement. Swimming also has a part to play in promoting a healthy lifestyle among young people turned off by other sports.

But above all, parents want to take their children on summer holiday confident that they can cope if they fall in the hotel pool. To borrow an old slogan, it is time for a change. What is needed is local, high-quality facilities, available at a reasonable price.

But more than that, ministers must make it clear that, if schools take time to teach all children to swim, they will not end up being penalised when inspectors come calling or the Government launches its latest crusade against "underperforming" schools.

Literacy and numeracy skills are important but so is swimming. Junior education minister Baroness Ashton said last October that "it is essential that children are aware of the principles and skills of water safety".

Hear, hear.

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