Lack of time and funds are the two main obstacles for schools as they try to teach pupils to swim, the TESCCPR survey reveals.
Two in five schools have to rely on parents to help meet the cost of lessons. Of more concern to many is the sheer amount of time swimming takes from other areas of the curriculum.
This leads some schools to reject swimming lessons even though pupils are legally entitled to them.
Schools face an average round trip of 30 minutes to the nearest pool, with some taking journeys of up to an hour and three quarters. When pupils' changing time is added, a single half-hour swimming lesson can take up to three hours out of the school day.
Southfields junior school in Peterborough is among those complaining there is not enough time to hit national curriculum targets in swimming.
Elsewhere, funding shortfalls exacerbate the problem. Pupils at Wolverham primary, Cheshire, walk to their local baths because the school cannot afford a coach.
Little has changed since 2000 when a TESCCPR survey found that many schools relied on parents for the cost of transport, pool hire and tuition.
Schools report that the total cost of lessons can exceed pound;4,000 per year.
At Greenlands school, Preston, Lancashire, swimming has suffered from budget cuts - and is now restricted to half an hour per week for Year 5 pupils. Pupils at Holy Trinity primary, Birmingham, do not get swimming lessons at all due to budget pressures.
Only slightly more than a third of schools reported receiving help from their local education authority to pay for pool hire.
David Sparkes, chief executive of the Amateur Swimming Association, said schools needed more support from councils: "The responsibility for swimming cannot be left to individual schools. It has to be part of the local strategy for education. The issues of pool hire, transport and tuition can only be tackled with a commitment from the local authority."
Mr Sparkes said a massive national initiative to train primary staff to teach swimming is needed if provision is to improve.
The survey found that one in nine schools relies on parents to help teach pupils to swim. Fewer than half have a member of staff who is trained as a swimming instructor.
TES survey key findings
* An average of three in 10 primary pupils do not master basic personal safety and survival techniques.
* One in six leaves primary school unable to swim 25 metres.
* 1 in 11 schools (mainly infants) does no swimming in curriculum time.
* Pupils achieve the expected level by age 11 at fewer than one in 10 schools.
* Schools face an average round trip of half an hour to a pool.
* More than two in five schools charge parents for lessons - at up to pound;3.50 each.
* Pupils who do take part in swimming lessons get an average of 19 lessons per year lasting an average of 30 minutes each.
* Pupils in Years 5 and 6 are less likely to take part in swimming than those in Years 3 and 4.
* Only 5 per cent of schools provide opportunities for swimming outside the curriculum.
WHAT THEY SHOULD KNOW
National Curriculum requirements (England)
Key stage 1(Non statutory) Pupils should be taught to:
* move in water (for example, jump, walk, hop and spin, using swimming aids and support).
* float and move with and without swimming aids.
* feel the buoyancy and support of water and swimming aids.
* propel themselves in water using different swimming aids, arm and leg actions and basic strokes.
Key stage 2
(Statutory) Pupils should be taught to:
* pace themselves in floating and swimming challenges related to speed, distance and personal survival.
* swim unaided for a sustained period of time over a distance of at least 25m.
* use recognised arm and leg actions, lying on their front and back.
* use a range of recognised strokes and personal survival skills (for example, front crawl, back crawl, breaststroke, sculling, floating and surface diving).