Thursday, 17 May 2012

Learning to swim

There's a shocking study out today, conducted by the ASA, which shows that approximately a third of all primary school children leave school without being able to swim. I defy you not to cry at the heartbreaking account by the grandparents of an 8 year old boy who slipped into a canal and drowned because they'd never been able to afford swimming lessons for him and he hadn't received them at school.  Swimming is part of the curriculum, but isn't honoured because of a lack of resources and time in schools; it is really the only sport that can also save your life.

I was lucky enough to be the grandchild of a lifeguard and water polo player, and the daughter of his daughter - a competitive swimmer in her own right as a teenager. Learning to swim was a natural part of family life, and some of my fondest memories of my enormously loved grandfather are from the time I spent learning to swim with him. I went on to swim competitively (however unimpressively), qualified as a life-guard, dived for bricks in my pajamas, and had more fun than I can possibly say....and that's before even thinking about the Channel swimming.

As an aside, though, I would like to see much more of a break down of these figures, since it is highly probable that these non-swimming children are not evenly spread across the population. Swimming lessons, and regular pool visits are beyond the financial reach of many, and private schools and wealthier areas are much more likely to have access to pools and to build swimming into the curriculum. In the US, non-swimming is also racially divided, with far more black children dying from drowning than white children - a combination of the effects of poverty, and a lack of attention in school swimming lessons due to racist assumptions about black people not being able to swim because of higher average bone densities. I don't know whether this racial aspect also applies to the UK, and haven't been able to find any statistics, but the poverty dimension must surely apply.

But for now, the over-arching statistic - 200,000 children leaving primary school each year without being able to swim - has had considerable impact and a lot of press coverage. Let's hope that it leads to some positive changes, and that the government can divert some of the vast resources being poured in the great white elephant that is the 2012 Olympics into actually teaching children this useful and enormously pleasurable life skill.


  1. Only just caught up with this post K, but I've been thinking about this issue a lot the post few days. Another teenager drowned in the Thames in Oxford this week - L saw the police in the aftermath from the bank. The newspaper coverage has been full of warnings that swimming in the river is dangerous and people should only go to lifeguarded pools. Nothing about teaching more people to swim and to swim in the river safely. It's just going to keep happening. So sad.

  2. Oh, this is so sad. i think that there are a lot of things going on in these drownings that get shoved into the "water is really dangerous and don't go near it" box. I don't know the details of this tragedy, but I've noticed a few stories about young men jumping into water (from bridges, cliffs etc) without any awareness of what lies beneath the surface. You can't help but think that a particular version of masculinity needs a bit more press attention, rather than perilous water. Part of learning to swim is learning how to be around water and to make assessments about safety - what a shame to just tell people to stay away.

  3. Exactly. The primary lesson from this incident should be: don't jump off the highest bridge in Oxford when you can't swim. I'm actually so risk averse that I won't even jump off the bank but I'll happily swim in the river with other people because I know it's safe (enough). I'm not alone and I'm a competent enough swimmer. I'm always amazed how much attention we generate. People think we're crazy and only a few decades ago no one would have blinked.


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