In at the deep end?

In at the deep end?

Simon Lebus warns against the apparent demise of swimming lessons in schools and welcomes the change in swim coaching style since he was a student.

Swim England introduced its new strategy to get the nation swimming in April. This coincided with the announcement that it has changed its name from The Amateur Swimming Association (ASA).

The ASA’s gold silver and bronze awards were a large part of my own swimming education many decades ago, which was based on the ‘sink or swim’ methodology. At my school, this involved waiting until the water in our unheated outdoor pool had reached 57 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees centigrade) and then throwing everybody in to see if they could swim. If you couldn't - and I couldn’t - you were given red swimming trunks. There then followed a series of weekly lessons taught by a retired Brigadier with a ferocious temper who had seen war service and was not temperamentally suited to teaching young boys of a nervous disposition. These came to an end only when one successfully managed to swim three lengths of the pool without stopping , whereupon one graduated to blue swimming trunks to show one could stay afloat, following which there was a further round of instruction to be endured to enable one to qualify for the various ASA badges, which once acquired would be sewn on to the blue trunks. I myself never progressed beyond the bronze badge and found the experience sufficiently disagreeable that I was always glad when summer colds meant that I was put off games and could avoid swimming lessons.

Of course, much has changed since then (good) but the basic principle that swimming is a life skill that everybody should be taught and that should be part of the school curriculum remains. However, a recently published report from the Swim Group Review of Curriculum Swimming and Water Safety Lessons raises concerns that swimming is not being taken seriously enough by primary schools, which are required under the national curriculum to teach students how to swim at least 25 metres (the length of an average swimming pool) and how to use a range of different strokes. Worryingly, the report concludes that pupils are reaching these targets in only around a third of all primary schools.

This coincides with a new approach to training Ofsted inspectors about how to evaluate risk and to take a proportionate approach to health and safety issues. The new chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, is concerned that schools are wrapping children in cotton wool, because they (the schools) have lost the capacity meaningfully to judge risk in favour of a tick box approach. She gives the examples of school sports days being cancelled because of dew on the grass, and young children in high-vis jackets wandering city streets looking like ‘tiny construction workers’.

This context of high levels of risk aversion makes it all the more ironic that swimming teaching is suffering. The ability to swim is a life-saver quite aside from its fitness benefits and the access it gives to all sorts of enjoyable recreational activity. Indeed, it was reportedly regarded as so important by the former headmaster of an old-fashioned London prep school (perhaps rather similar to the one I was educated at), that he stated that he would be happy for children to leave his school, even if they had learned nothing else, provided they could at least read and swim. It is unusual to see swimming and reading given curricular equivalence in this way, but it highlights an important underlying truth, often lost sight of in an age of hyper-accountability that relies so heavily on exam-based metrics, about the fact that school plays a key role in developing a much wider range of skills than the purely academic.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment