Calls grow to roll out statutory swimming lessons in Scottish schools
For more than half a century, Gina Logan has been a stalwart of Scottish swimming, helping to train generations of teachers and tutors, and even managing the Scotland swim team who secured a haul of 12 medals - six golds among them - in the pool at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
But things, she says, have changed. Earlier this year, the veteran instructor organised a protest at her local swimming pool in the Fife town of Cupar. The outcome? She lost her job, and the pool began closing its doors for up to four hours every weekday.
As someone who has dedicated her life to ensuring children and young people are safe and confident in the water, such decisions came as a bitter blow. “The situation has got worse, much much worse,” she said. “I just can’t understand the closures, reduced hours and lack of lessons. I feel so angry about it.”
Logan, a former president of the governing body, Scottish Swimming, is one of a growing number of people urging the Scottish Government and local authorities to step up their provision of swimming lessons. Such a framework, she argues, would not only provide a pathway for future success in elite sport, but ensure future generations can be safe in the water.
“We live on the island, and every other day in the summer you read of someone drowning in a river or a quarry,” she said. “I just can’t stand seeing children who are not able to swim.
“I recently worked with a group of young leaders at a local high school to become lifeguards or teachers, and there were about four of them who couldn’t swim. It’s just scary, absolutely scary.”
The arguments for a step up in Scotland’s approach to water safety are supported by statistics compiled by the National Water Safety Forum. Last year, there were 105 water-related fatalities in Scotland – the five year average between 2016 and 2020 was 92.
There was also a pronounced spike in the number of accidental deaths in the water, with 57 such fatalities, up from 39 in 2020. Those aged 19 or under accounted for 10 of the deaths, with four children aged nine, 11, 13, and 16 among seven people who drowned in just one week last July.
While swimming lessons are statutory in primary schools in England and Wales, there is no such blanket provision in Scotland. Instead, lessons are provided on a council by council basis, with no local or national mechanisms in place to collect data on how many schools are providing lessons.
According to Scottish Swimming, more than four in ten children leave primary school in Scotland unable to swim. The current Learn to Swim framework, a partnership between it and Scottish Water aimed at children aged 11 and under, aims to offer lessons to an estimated 30,000 school pupils by 2025.
However, an analysis of the initiative found that there were significant disparities in uptake, with just 10.5 per of children taking community swimming lessons coming from the 20 per cent most deprived areas of the country.
That lack of inclusivity, many believe, is a significant problem which can only be addressed by statutory provision.
“If lessons are not statutory, it means most children have to go through private lessons, which not everyone can afford,” explained Lewis Condy, a keen swimmer from Stirling who started a petition urging the Scottish Government to embed swimming lessons in the primary curriculum. It has been signed by more than 1,500 people.
Many providers of lessons, such as arms-length leisure trusts, are also struggling to get back up to speed after pandemic-related disruption. Glasgow Life, for example, is not inviting any new members to its sessions, while Leisure and Culture Dundee has more than 730 children on its waiting list for lessons - a situation made worse by the closure of the city’s Olympia swimming pool.
At least one firm offering private lessons in Scotland does so via Swim England’s framework, with children receiving Swim England badges.
Logan said the status quo was simply not good enough.
“I know councils are strapped for cash, but children’s health and safety is vital,” she said. “It’s a life skill that everyone should have.”
Condy also pointed to the fact that the lack of statutory lessons remained persistent despite the country’s continued success at elite swimming - Scotland won 12 medals in the pool at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, the largest haul from any sport.
“Swimming is probably one of Scotland’s best sports, and it’s ironic we don’t have it in the curriculum,” he added.
In March, community safety minister, Ash Regan, unveiled a new national water safety action plan in response to the spate of drownings.
Its key actions include lesson plans on water safety for school pupils. It also specifies the creation of a project group to identify “high level principles” in developing a “deliverable programme of school swimming.”
Holyrood’s citizen participation and public petitions committee is currently considering Condy’s petition.
In a submission to the committee, Scottish Swimming said it has sent a proposal to the government in support of a programme of school swimming, and is involved in discussions with sportscotland over its potential development.
“With the aim of providing the opportunity for all children to learn to swim we believe that any school swimming delivery should be part of the curriculum or at least delivered as part of the school day,” it explained.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “We take water safety very seriously. Our water safety action plan includes the continued development of the national Learn to Swim framework delivered with local authorities and communities.
"Raising awareness of water safety should go further than swimming lessons, however. That is why the framework, which is supported by Scottish Water and delivered by aquatic partners every week, includes water safety lessons that help children to become safe, competent, and confident swimmers.”
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