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250,000 Y6 children leave primary school unable to swim

Swim England

4 min read Partner content

Almost a third (31%) of all pupils leaving primary school last week did so without being able to swim and without basic water safety skills, a new report reveals.  

The Swim Group’s Curriculum Swimming and Water Safety Review Group say that, in the face of increased curriculum pressures, swimming in primary schools is not being taken seriously enough, and warn that children will continue to get into difficulties in water and drown each year if nothing is done about the situation.

The summer holidays typically see a spike in the number of children drowning. According to latest figures*, 300 people died in accidental drownings in the UK last year. Forty people aged 19 and under drowned in the UK in 2016, an increase of 25% from the previous year.

A study commissioned by Swim England on behalf of the Group reveals that despite swimming and water safety being part of the national curriculum for over 20 years, two-thirds (63%) of parents with Year 6 children fear that their child could not save themselves in water. This is despite 94% of Year 6 parents thinking it is important that their child should be able to swim competently by the time they finish primary school.

The report claims that at least one in 20 primary schools are not providing any swimming lessons at all. Of the remaining primaries, swimming provision is so poor that only a third of schools (36%) are providing effective lessons that reach all three national curriculum standards.

The Group concludes that schools “prioritise subjects for which they are graded” and challenges government to enhance the provision of school swimming, and to empower schools so that they deliver on their curriculum requirements.

The report also acknowledges that an additional barrier to learning is the confidence amongst primary teachers to teach swimming. It says that one of the key challenges is that “there is no statutory requirement for primary teachers or support staff to undertake professional learning for the teaching of swimming and water safety.” Currently just 11 teacher training colleges include swimming in their training with an additional 300 tutors nationwide able to offer additional training.

The Group, which was formed following the publication of the Government’s sport strategy Sporting Future to consider the challenges around swimming and water safety in schools, has made a series of recommendations on how swimming in primary schools can be addressed. These include specific training and new resources for school teachers and other teaching staff, a new national top-up swimming programme for schools with the lowest swimming attainment levels, and achievement badges to celebrate the success of pupils achieving statutory standards.

Only half (54%) of the Year 6 parents surveyed said that they were currently told by the school about their child’s swimming achievements.

Steve Parry, former Olympian and chair of the Curriculum Swimming and Water Safety Review Group says that:

“We know that over a thousand schools don’t teach swimming even though it is a statutory requirement. At the moment we are failing our children by not helping them learn an essential skill. Hundreds of people drown ever year and that is something we can remedy.

“Water safety is the only part of the national curriculum that will save children’s lives, it can’t be treated as an optional extra. We would welcome the opportunity to work closely with Ofsted in setting quality standards for curriculum swimming. That is the ‘silver bullet’ for ensuring schools deliver swimming.”

Jon Glenn, Swim England Learn to Swim and Workforce Director, says that teachers shouldn’t be blamed.

“Given the pressures on the school timetable, it’s understandable if unfortunate that an appropriate number of hours is often not given to the teaching of the important life-saving skills of swimming and water safety. We all need to work together to ensure our young people are given the opportunity to learn these important skills and stay safe.”

Robert Goodwill, Minister of State for Children and Families, also added that:

“Swimming is a vital life skill and schools have a duty to teach children how to swim and learn about water safety at primary school. These findings show that more needs to be done to ensure all schools feel confident teaching swimming to students, which is why we will continue to work closely with Swim England and the Swim Group to review the recommendations within this report.”

Tracey Crouch, Minister for Sport and Civil Society, welcomed the report, commenting that:

“Swimming is not just a great sport but a discipline that is crucial for children to learn. We want to see more schools stepping up and ensuring that the number of children who leave school able to swim rises. I am grateful for the work of Swim England and the Swim Group on this report and government and Sport England will continue to work with them on this issue”.


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