Thrown in at the deep end

12th January 2007 at 00:00
Taking swimming is a challenge in itself. It's even more difficult, and dangerous, when you can't swim. Jan Trebilcock reports

Cathy dreads Thursday mornings. That's when she has to take her nine-year-old pupils for a swimming lesson at the local pool - but Cathy has no swimming teaching or lifeguard qualifications and she is not even a confident swimmer. "I've just been told to get on with it, even though I haven't got a clue," she says. "I hate it. I feel nervous, worried and uncomfortable. It's horrible.

"It's one thing to be asked to teach French if you don't speak it yourself - you can always do some research. But with swimming, there is always that element of risk and danger."

Cathy's fears were realised a couple of weeks ago when two of her pupils got into trouble after the pool swimming instructor asked the children if they would like to swim for badges. At the time there were no records of how far they could swim and which badges they had, so the instructor relied on what the children said. "Four wanted to try for 800 metres and I was asked to count the number of lengths they swam. They were swimming in the centre of the pool. Two children did their first length fine. Then came the next two," Cathy says.

"Halfway through his first length one child stopped, realising he wasn't going to make it to the other end. He started trying to swim for the side.

Then the other child stopped, panicked and started shouting for help."

At the time Cathy did not know what to do. "I didn't want to start shouting and frightening the other children but I couldn't get the lifeguard's attention," she says. "Then the swimming teacher saw me and she managed to alert the lifeguard - who then took his shoes off. I couldn't believe it.

"Thankfully, the swimming teacher threw a rope to the child and brought her safely to the side. It was dreadful. I was so scared, panicked and angry at being put in that position. I didn't know what to do or who was responsible."

Guidelines drawn up by the British Association of Advisers and Lecturers in Physical Education are regarded as "the Bible" when it comes to school swimming and are endorsed by the Government. They state that overall responsibility for pupils remains with school staff at all times.

They also recommend that swimming teachers and staff responsible for classes hold teaching and life-saving awards offered by the Swimming Teachers' Association, the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) and the Royal Life Saving Society.

Cathy takes her class of 30 alongside a qualified swimming teacher employed by her school, and the pool instructor, and is normally responsible for the middle-ability group.

She doesn't want to take the class swimming again, but says: "It's very difficult to say 'I'm not doing this', when 30 children want to go swimming."

Cathy is concerned that pupils are being short-changed by having an unqualified teacher, and that pool instructors don't know the children and have no idea how to handle pupils who suffer from ADHD and autism. The general public also swims at the same time as lessons take place: "There is not an area that's roped off for us - who knows who's in the pool at the same time as the children?"

Ten teachers at Cathy's school take swimming classes for seven to 11-year-olds and nobody has swimming teaching qualifications.

"As teachers we are professional people, but there is nothing professional about the 'chuck them in and have a go' attitude towards swimming," she says.

Cathy is not alone. Her concerns are echoed throughout the country. Helen is in her second year of primary teaching, has no swimming qualifications and is not a strong swimmer.

"I was given a handout on swimming during my PGCE course and now I'm expected to teach swimming. It's crazy," she says. "I take the top-ability group and they are better swimmers than I am.

"I'm really worried about health and safety. I did lifesaving when I was eight years old, but that doesn't mean I'm a lifesaver. I would like to have some training. It could so easily be a life and death situation."

Stephen Hargreaves is a primary teacher who has worked as a qualified swimming teacher for more than 15 years, and a lifeguard for more than 10.

He has thousands of hours of poolside experience and has worked alongside many teachers who said they had no training in teaching swimming and admitted they had "no idea what they were doing".

He interviewed eight teachers for a small-scale research project in Leeds last year. None had a lifesaving qualification, three were not qualified to teach swimming and none taught water safety. Two could not even swim.

"There are a lot of teachers out there who are understandably very anxious about the responsibility of teaching swimming in these circumstances," says Stephen, who wants to see a law introduced stating that only qualified swimming teachers and lifesavers are able to teach primary swimming.

A survey by the Institute for Sport and Recreation Management (ISRM) in 1997 found that 54 per cent of schools use teachers who have no appropriate qualifications to teach swimming and water safety skills. More recent figures are unavailable, but there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that not much has changed in the past decade.

Last year a TES survey found that more than 47 per cent of the schools included did not have a teacher with a qualification in swimming tuition.

John Glenn, from the ASA, agrees that it is not uncommon for unqualified teachers to be asked to teach swimming and that many schools need to take a look at their procedures.

Linda Bishop-Bailey, who is managing consultant at the ISRM at Loughborough University and a national authority on school swimming, says many teachers spend just two hours in their three-year training course on teaching swimming. PGCE students - and even PE specialists - may not cover it at all. "Many teachers who are required to teach swimming can't swim and have no specialised training," she says. "Swimming is starved of funding and it is way down the priority list. Since the mid-1990s, budgets and responsibilities for swimming have been delegated to individual schools and there are only a handful of local authorities left which still have a central budget for school swimming. The result has been that responsibility for a lot of health and safety measures has fallen between the gaps.

"I've seen a lot of dangerous situations in school swimming lessons. A lot of it is down to lack of common sense and basic health and safety procedures."

Linda has been working with local authorities and schools in a bid to improve swimming policies. Her work with Buckinghamshire County Council is now a best-practice model, which she hopes can be adopted across the UK.

Steve Franks, operations director at the Swimming Teachers' Association, says: "Teachers need some proper support. We know of schools where teachers are not trained and there are no lifeguards. As a parent I wouldn't put my child in that environment - would you?"

Treading water

Drowning is one of the most common causes of accidental death among children, with about 50 fatalities each year.

More than a third of children left primary school last year without the basic swimming skills that could save their lives, a TES survey revealed last year.

The Government wants every primary pupil to be able to swim 25 metres by the end of key stage 2. Last June it announced a pound;5.5 million "top up" scheme to achieve this.

Ministers say teachers are trained to teach the full requirements of the national curriculum, including teaching swimming

Where to go for help

The Swimming Teachers' Association (STA) and the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) offer a range of swimming teaching and lifesaving courses, some aimed specifically at classroom teachers.

The STA is offering a new pool safety award for teachers and the ASA has a one-day free national curriculum training programme course for primary teachers and teaching assistants.

Visit, and for more information

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