Splashing about in the water can be fun, but recent events have reminded us it can be dangerous too. That’s why the British swimming authorities are encouraging schools and parents to get their kids used to the water, says Michael Donlevy
How did you spend your bank holiday weekend? If you’re an active parent who likes your kids to have fun, you may well have taken them swimming. If not, why not?
The sad fact is, not enough of us do. And even fewer of us are encouraged to, or have any help from our children’s schools. A recent survey by the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA), in conjunction with Kellogg’s, found that a third of British children couldn’t swim by the time they left primary school, even though lessons are a statutory part of the National Curriculum.
It’s not just swimming – or an inability to do it – that’s the problem. The recent cases of Lara Lewis, five, who was swept away while walking on a Portuguese beach with her grandparents, and Dylan Cecil, four, who was swept off a jetty in Burnham-on-Sea, highlight the dangers of open water. Things got even worse over the bank holiday, when three children died after the canoe they were in capsized on Gairloch in the Scottish Highlands.
So what can we do? The first and most obvious answer is that we should keep very young children away from open water – yet we should also be giving them the skills to survive if, when they are older, they find themselves in danger. It is a tragic irony that the only child to survive Gairloch was an eight-year-old who was able to swim to shore.
In response to its own research, the ASA drew up a six-point manifesto that suggests every child learns to swim in primary school. It also calls for improved training for primary school teachers, ‘robust’ monitoring of school swimming at Ofsted, making swimming a school budget priority and help to keep school pools open.
Which is all very well, except we are in a recession and a government busy selling off playing fields is hardly about to help any school with the expensive business of teaching kids to swim. As the ASA points out, many schools ask parents to subsidise swimming lessons. But local authorities can help and, by enforcing tuition, so can Ofsted.
‘Drowning is the third most common cause of accidental death in children and school swimming is by far the most effective way to teach children how to be safe in and around water,’ says David Sparkes, chief executive of the ASA. ‘We need to take action. We call upon parliamentary policy makers, local authorities, schools and relevant organisations to demonstrate their support for our manifesto.’
Yet for now the onus is on parents to do what they can. We are not suggesting for one minute that the parents – or in the case of Lara Lewis, grandparent – of those who have lost children in tragic accidents are irresponsible. The keyword here is ‘accident’. They are stark reminders that water is dangerous, especially the vicious and unpredictable waters of the sea. We can only try to be more aware of these dangers – and equip our children as best we can.
I look at it this way: my parents didn’t teach me to swim, which meant when I finally did go to the local pool with my school at the age of nine, I was lumped in the ‘baby’ pool. It was here that a ‘friend’ decided it would be fun to see how long he could hold my head under water. I thought I was going to drown and I had a fear of swimming for years. But would my parents have been to blame for that? Hardly. What it did do was make sure that my son was regularly dunked in water when he was a baby, and that he was given swimming lessons as soon as he was old enough.
And how’s this for inspiration? British swimmer Steve Parry says: ‘After falling in a river, my parents booked my first swimming lesson. Like many kids I remember being extremely anxious, maybe even scared, but the confidence I got after letting go of the side for the first time was unbelievable and 20 years later I won an Olympic medal.’
We need to change our approach to teaching children to swim. If you’ve ever been to the States and seen kids being taught to swim, it can look almost brutal. Forget floats, paddles and splashing around – children are thrown in and taught to swim so that they will survive, not simply have fun on water slides. Britain’s own all-too-real tragedies show it’s time for us to do the same. Sparkes sums it up: ‘We have a responsibility for the children of today and tomorrow to get this right.’