Swimming should be a right for all

7th February 2003 at 00:00
Teacher training, adequate funding and a proper place in the curriculum are needed if young people are to be safe in the water, says Win Hayes.

THERE are two issues about school swimming. The first is about entitlement to learn to swim within primary education so that children are safe before they are at an age to be out and about alone and potentially in danger.

It could be argued that learning to swim is not really a straightforward part of the 5-14 expressive arts curriculum. This programme has limited time within the primary school and a range of subjects to cover. Learning to swim takes up a proportion of time that is considered by some to be unrealistic.

But this is about acquiring a fundamental life skill which children can use to participate in swimming and other aquatic activities. We learn to read before we study literature or try to do other things that require reading ability. We learn road safety before we are out and about alone in areas of traffic. We should view learning to swim as a similar core life skill that is fundamental to other things that follow.

Thereafter swimming should take its place in the expressive arts and physical education curriculum. Before that stage it should not be in competition with other activities for time. It should be a requirement of education.

The research shows that not all pupils get swimming lessons and many have insufficient time (six to 12 half-hour sessions) to master the basics and become safe in water. It is another area where the location in which you live and the school you attend determine whether you have the opportunity to learn something that is a basic life skill.

If education does not take this firmly on board, then it needs to become the responsibility of some other agency. There are possibilities of partnerships and sharing the delivery, for example, with leisure and recreation or with local clubs. But someone has to monitor it and ensure that it happens for all.

Swimming provision cannot be funded intermittently by one-off or short-term initiatives. Beneficial as these are, they are only meeting the needs of a few, in some areas or for one year. Ongoing provision needs to be secured.

The second issue is about the quality of the programmes. If there is limited time, it is all the more essential that what is offered is of a quality that has the maximum chance of being effective. In our research, there were certainly some good quality learn-to-swim programmes which could serve as examples, but there were some programmes where the chance of pupil improvement was very limited.

Teacher qualifications are a major issue. A fifth of teachers of primary school learn-to-swim programmes either do not have any swimming teaching qualifications or only have the lowest level of qualification which prepares them to teach small groups of two to four pupils under the supervision of a fully qualified teacher. The cost of resolving this problem across Scotland for all agencies delivering learn-to-swim programmes is roughly pound;500,000.

To improve the quality, there needs to be some element of control of what is acceptable as a learn-to-swim programme. Some specification of "learn-to-swim provision" is required which has permutations of class size, time, teacher qualifications, pool space and so on. If the class size is large and space is small, for example, children will have to wait for turns and the time needs to be increased.

If teacher qualifications are low, then the number of teachers needs to be increased to make the groups smaller. Ongoing monitoring is therefore essential to ensure quality is maintained.

Win Hayes is a lecturer in the department of physical education, sport and leisure in Edinburgh University's faculty of education.

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