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'Water education' saves lives

Do you remember your swimming lessons at school? Were your experiences similar to mine and many others?

There were mixed-sex lessons; many of the girls who had had private swimming lessons dived in elegantly and swam effortlessly and efficiently. And though many of the boys could dive and swim, they were more interested in creating the maximum impact on entering the water.

The non-swimmers were either shivering on the side or, having been ordered into the water, stood with chattering teeth in the shallow end, their knuckles white as they grasped the bar.

That scenario remains familiar today, according to last November's Office for Standards in Education report, which states that 20 per cent of primary children are unable to swim 25 metres. Furthermore, in some disadvantaged areas one third of children can't meet this basic target.

Inspectors also found that while pupils are instructed in water safety in the classroom, in the past three years more than half of schools have reduced the time allocated to swimming.

At the heart of the problem is a lack of unified standards in teaching swimming in schools. The last survey of the 5,000 members of the Swimming Teachers' Association (STA) confirmed that it is increasingly costly to hire pools and that teachers don't have the time.

Equally alarming were the results of a questionnaire on water safety that STA carried out at this year's Education Show. Only 5 per cent of respondents answered all the questions correctly, yet the majority of them taught water safety or were responsible for taking children swimming.

Swimming should not be thought of as a sport. It is life saving and as essential as reading or writing. The latest figures from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents show that the number of children under 15 who drowned increased by 50 per cent to 54 deaths last year.

It's not unreasonable to think that there may be a link between this 50 per cent increase in drownings and the reduction in time given to swimming.

It is also surprising, in view of the increasing climate of litigation and liability, that much swimming is taught by teachers who do not hold a recognised qualification.

Trained teachers will understand the sensitivities of children on the poolside and will know about confidence-building practices that enable children to overcome their fear of water.

A national swimming and water safety officer to ensure uniform standards needs to be established. The teachers are available but there is no central body to provide a clear direction. Swimming teaching should be given a higher priority and this should be government led.

The Department for Education and Skills has formed a Swimming Action Group (SWAG) of organisations to improve swimming at key stage 2. Their recommendations include: Swimming teachers should be qualified with the STA or a similar recognised organisation.

There should always be a qualified lifesaver on duty if the swimming teacher does not hold a lifesaving qualification.

Recommendations of pupil:teacher ratios should be observed.

School management would be responsible for ensuring these points are met.

Where a child fails to achieve the KS2 requirement they should be given additional instruction.

However, the ability to struggle 25 metres in a warm pool does not make a child safe. If a child falls into cold water, the shock, the current and the clothes will reduce their ability to swim by a huge amount. The STA believes 100 metres should be the minimum requirement.

It is time to think about water education rather than swimming per se. Water education would teach all children not only to swim, but also how to behave safely near water.

And the responsibility for this should go to the STA because it is a UK-based charity that has been training professional swimming teachers all over the world for nearly 70 years.

The STA is also the only UK swimming organisation that incorporates a comprehensive water safety awareness programme into its qualifications.

As part of the STA's commitment to improving water safety, we have developed: Swimming teaching courses at primary and secondary level, The International Swimming and Water Safety Standards (ISWSS).

ISWSS consists of seven different progressive schemes, five of which are interlinked. The sixth scheme for special needs is a separate but complementary scheme. The seventh is a personal survival series. All the schemes are structured to introduce new skills, reinforce those learned in previous awards, and develop new techniques, stamina and understanding.

The Government's decision to set up SWAG is welcome . A report has been written and is being reviewed by the DFES. Its findings are due to be announced shortly.

In the meantime, the STA's members are continuing to make more than one million awardsto young people every year, and this year we expect to train nearly 15,000 teachers and lifeguards, a 350 per cent increase on 1997.

Swimming Teachers' Association Tel: 01922 645097Email:

Roger Millward is chief executive of the Swimming Teachers' Association

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