Water Safety Education

– in Westminster Hall am 12:56 pm ar 7 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

1 pm

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Llafur, Blackley and Broughton

I understand that there is agreement by John Cryer and the Minister for another hon. Member to participate in the debate. However, as is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up the debate.

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Llafur, Leyton and Wanstead

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the provision of water safety education in schools.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank Mr Speaker for choosing this debate, which I am delighted to have secured. It is on a subject that is of great importance to me as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on swimming, and I am sure that it is a matter of interest and concern for Members on both sides of the House. I also want briefly to thank both Philip Brownlie, head of public affairs at Swim England—it used to be the Amateur Swimming Association, in my day—for all his help in securing the debate and with my speech, and my hon. Friend Catherine West, the chair of the all-party group.

Swimming has been a genuine passion of mine for many years. I started to swim at the age of five or six and I have swum with various swimming clubs, such as Leyton ASC, Hornchurch ASC and East Grinstead Tri Club. I want every child to have the kind of opportunity that I and many others had when we were growing up. If we can develop children’s physical literacy through good-quality, positive experiences at school, we can set them up for a lifelong love of being active.

Swimming is obviously a sport, but it is probably the only sport that might save someone’s life at some point. Figures shared with me by the Royal Life Saving Society show that the number of child drownings is increasing at an alarming rate. In my view, that is not unconnected to the net loss of swimming pools in this country of about 400 over the past decade. In 2022, there was a 46% increase in the number of child drownings against the five-year average, and although the 2023 data has not been officially published, early indications suggest that child drownings may have increased significantly again last year.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate on what, for me, is a critical issue. In my constituency, many young people and children in particular have died while swimming. In the figures that he referred to, 35 accidental child fatalities were reported. That is a classroom full of children. That gives us an idea of the magnitude of the issue. Does he agree that consideration should be given to a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland awareness campaign, alongside the education systems in the devolved nations, to ensure that children have an understanding of basic water safety, and how to be safe and keep safe?

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Llafur, Leyton and Wanstead

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will not comment on the devolved nations, but he speaks very eloquently.

When the figures are adjusted for socioeconomic status and ethnicity, there are worrying elements in the child mortality data. The National Child Mortality Database reported that the risk of drowning was twice as high among children from poorer backgrounds as among those from better-off backgrounds, and that the risk of drowning was three and a half times higher for children from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. For me, that is a particular worry, because I represent one of the most diverse constituencies in the country.

The debate is very timely, particularly when we consider that we are fast approaching the summer and that 2024 marks the 30th anniversary of swimming’s inclusion in the national curriculum. For all these reasons, it is important that we have this debate today and that the importance of swimming and water safety is highlighted in this place.

Figures from the latest Sport England Active Lives survey of children show that 71% of children in year 7 are able to swim 25 metres, which represents a fall of 6.3% compared with five years ago. Worryingly, pupils are also being offered fewer swimming lessons at school. That is raised with me just about every time I visit a school in my constituency. Swim England has also seen concerning examples of parents being asked to pay for their children’s school swimming lessons, which risks exacerbating existing inequalities. I represent some of the poorest wards in London, so that is very relevant to my daily work.

I pay tribute to the many hard-working teachers in Leyton and Wanstead and across the country. I recognise that teaching swimming and water safety presents a number of serious challenges, particularly under current circumstances. On top of that, school staff are often underqualified, underprepared and inexperienced when it comes to delivering comprehensive physical education. That is not a criticism of the teachers, but a criticism of the lack of resources. More qualified and prepared school staff would enable smaller ratios and higher-quality teaching to make the most of limited learning time for pupils.

Organisations such as Swim England produce free resources, including the school swimming and water safety charter, to support teachers, as well as running courses such as the national curriculum training programme for primary school teachers, but the Department for Education and Ofsted have been a bit too reluctant to adequately monitor and enforce the curriculum requirements. Although schools are required to publish their swimming and water safety attainment levels in order to receive PE premium funding, evidence suggests that many are not doing so. Could the Minister share the number of schools that the Department has taken action against for not meeting that requirement since its introduction? PE premium funding itself is only guaranteed until the end of the 2024-25 academic year. Could the Minister confirm that the requirement to provide that data directly to the Department will remain, regardless of what might happen to PE premium funding?

PE premium funding has helped schools offer top-up swimming lessons, but I cannot help feeling that providing schools with enough core funding to deliver appropriate school swimming lessons would be a better way to proceed. The Minister may or may not be aware that in Estonia, for example, pupils receive 40 hours of school swimming lessons paid for by the Government.

A 2023 Ofsted report on PE described swimming and water safety attainment as “mixed” and stated that

“evaluation of the swimming and water safety element of the curriculum is limited”.

It recommended that primary school schools should ensure that

“their curriculum matches the breadth and ambition of the national curriculum for all pupils. It should include carefully sequenced and taught swimming and water safety lessons”.

I would like the Department to be much more active in monitoring and enforcing curriculum requirements, a point that members of the Swim Alliance have raised with me. The alliance, which is chaired by Debbie Kaye of the Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association, is a grouping of organisations from across the sector, including pool operators and groups such as the Black Swimming Association, Unity Swimming and Swim England.

Organisations such as the Youth Sport Trust, the Association for Physical Education and Swim England have proposed that PE should be made a core subject. I wonder whether the Minister might consider that in order to help PE obtain the profile and support in schools that it merits.

The growth in the number of pop-up pools is broadly welcome, but their small size and shallow depth means that it is impossible for them to meet curriculum requirements, and local authorities have raised concerns about the impact that increased use of pop-up pools could have on existing community facilities.

I want to allow time for my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green to speak and for the Minister to respond, but we cannot discuss water safety without discussing access to pools for pupils to learn in. Part of my constituency—three wards—is in the London Borough of Redbridge, which, according to Swim England, is the third most deprived local authority in the country with regard to available water space. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that just 20% of children across all ages in Redbridge can swim 25 metres, compared with 75% in Wandsworth. If we are to improve water safety, we must ensure that we have the pools we need for the future.

To summarise my views very briefly, schools need to be adequately resourced and able to provide swimming and water safety opportunities. School leadership groups need to prioritise swimming and water safety in schools. School swimming and water safety need more hands-on monitoring and enforcement from the DFE and Ofsted. As a country, we desperately need to invest in the community pools we need for the future, with both capital funding and revenue funding, so that swimming is an affordable activity. If we do all that, we can start to make the sort of progress that I am sure everyone across the House wants to see.

Finally, I mentioned that my three of my wards are in Redbridge; the other six are in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, where we have seen enormous core funding cuts. As I said at the beginning of my speech, just about every school I visit, in both Waltham Forest and Redbridge, has raised the difficulty of getting access to pool time for swimming. With that, I had better stop speaking and give others a chance to contribute.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 1:11, 7 Mai 2024

It is, as ever, a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the Minister for allowing me a little time to address some of the concerns that we have been raising since 2015, when the all-party group began. My hon. Friend John Cryer is a fantastic swimmer—unlike the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, who pootles up and down the Hampstead Heath ponds on warm days.

The important thing is access and equality of provision for children, because, as the Minister is aware, schools should be the great equaliser. It is important that every child learns to swim, regardless of their parents’ ability to swim. Unfortunately, we are not seeing much consistency. Almost every child goes to school, and it is a national curriculum requirement for them to be able to swim 25 metres, perform a range of strokes and perform safe self-rescue by the end of year 6. Of course, different schools have different priorities, but surely, now that this is an Ofsted priority, there should be much more uniformity. It is particularly worrying, as my hon. Friend said, that we are going backwards. Since the pandemic, a number of swimming pools have closed and the number of children who are confident swimmers has declined.

Why are we seeing such inequality in attainment? Sport England’s Active Lives survey of children and young people shows that while 90% of children from the most affluent families can swim 25 metres by years 7 to 8, that figure falls to just 53% of children with low family affluence, and it is a very similar story when it comes to the ability to self-rescue. Similarly, looking at ethnicity, the figures reveal shocking disparities, with 80% of white children in years 7 to 8 able to swim 25 metres, compared with just 50% of black children and 56% of Asian children.

It should not have to be this way. If we look at the figures for children who want to swim more, or who either like or love swimming, we see that children from poorer backgrounds and those from ethnically diverse communities are just as keen to swim as their friends, so it is not a lack of desire that accounts for the difference. Some good work has been done, including through the Inclusion 2024 programme—my hon. Friend also mentioned the Black Swimming Association—but I am keen to hear from the Minister about the recipe for success, and what assessment his Department has made of the reasons for the stubborn inequalities and what practical steps are planned to address them.

One contributing factor could be access to water facilities, as my hon. Friend said. We have lost hundreds of pools up and down the country since 2010, particularly due to the high cost of running them, given the energy bills. Does the Minister agree that, in such a situation, it is unsurprising that attainment levels across London are below the national average? My constituency is covered by the London Borough of Haringey, which is one of the local authorities with the biggest shortages of publicly available water space; there is quite a lot in the private school sector, but not enough that is publicly available. Just 35% of children of all ages across the borough can swim 25 metres. Even within London, though, the discrepancies are huge. In Hammersmith and Fulham, an area just 10 miles to the west of Haringey with no shortage of water, 88% of children are able to swim 25 metres.

In recent years, there has been some welcome national funding through the national leisure recovery fund and the swimming pool support fund, for which I give the Government credit, but that needs to be seen in the context of falling swimming ability rates. The national leisure recovery fund was much needed, but was only ever a short-term sticking plaster, and the swimming pool support fund was massively oversubscribed, showing the huge level of need in the leisure sector. There is no substitute for long-term, sustainable funding to deliver the network of community pools we need to provide school swimming opportunities for all children.

A recent survey from the Local Government Association shows that sport and leisure services remain under huge pressure, with more than half of local authorities needing to make cost savings in 2024-25. That follows the huge pressure that council budgets have been under over a number of years, as well as the increases in the costs of operating swimming pools as a result of factors such as massively increased energy prices and staffing costs, which have combined to create a real death knell for some of our swimming centres.

With schools already stating that accessing a pool is often one of the challenges in delivering their school swimming programmes, it is absolutely imperative that we make sure that all communities have access to pools. The Government previously committed to publishing a national vision for swimming facilities by the end of 2023. Could the Minister update us on where we are at, given that we are halfway through 2024 and have still not seen that national vision?

My second point—I will make it very briefly; I know Mr Stringer is getting very impatient in the Chair, but as a former council leader, he will be sympathetic on the point about council funding—is that for years it has been felt from the outside a bit like the Department had put school swimming and water safety on the “too hard to tackle” pile. Would the Minister please refresh the vision for swimming for every single child?

I hope the new online reporting tool being introduced by the Department will be a big step forward. Online tools are all very well, but what we need is more children in the pool doing their 25 metres unaided and learning to swim, so that we know that they will be safe in the coming summer, and we do not see any children drowning needlessly.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education) 1:17, 7 Mai 2024

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I congratulate John Cryer on securing this important debate. I commend him and Catherine West for their contributions and for their wider work in the all-party parliamentary group. I also welcome, as ever, the contribution from our mutual friend, Jim Shannon.

All children should know how to swim and keep themselves safe in and around water. Schools can play a really important role in ensuring that they are taught vital skills and knowledge, such as the water safety code. Some 91% of primary schools surveyed in 2023 reported that they were providing swimming and/or water safety lessons to their pupils, but we recognise that there is more to do to increase from the current level the number of children who are able to swim.

Data from the last academic year, as has been mentioned, show that 70.5% of year 7 children—the first year of secondary school—reported that they can swim 25 metres unaided. The national curriculum for physical education states that by the time they leave primary school, children should be able to

“perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations”.

That is in addition to swimming a minimum of 25 metres unaided and performing a range of strokes.

Water safety guidance for schools published by Swim England recommends that primary age pupils should be taught about the water safety code, beach flags and cold water shock. It also recommends pupils be taught about survival skills, such as floatation, treading water, energy conservation and how to signal for help.

Secondary schools are free to organise and deliver a diverse and challenging PE curriculum that suits the needs of all their pupils. While there is no statutory requirement on secondary schools to provide swimming and water safety lessons, the secondary PE curriculum provides clear guidance. It sets out that:

“Pupils should build on and embed the physical development and skills learned in key stages 1 and 2, become more competent, confident and expert in their techniques”.

Swimming and water safety lessons are one way of doing that, and resources are available for all key stages. Swim England recommends that children in key stages 3 and 4—secondary school—have the opportunity to extend their knowledge, including through the practical experience of different outdoor water environments, and annual campaign events such as World Drowning Prevention Day can be useful ways to refresh and build pupils’ knowledge across their time at school.

In July 2023, we published an update to the school sport and activity action plan. The plan encourages schools to teach pupils practical swimming and water safety techniques in a pool and to complement that with classroom lessons. In this area, as in others, schools welcome case studies from other schools and guidance on how to bring to life and embed swimming and water safety in their overall offer. In March, we published non-statutory guidance to support schools to enhance their PE provision and improve access to sport and physical activity. The guidance highlights the wide range of support available from Swim England, including, as has been mentioned, the free school swimming and water safety charter, which provides teachers with pupil awards, lesson plans, videos and water safety presentations. Swim England reports that more than 1,700 schools and lesson providers have registered with the charter.

We recognise the importance of getting water safety education right at an early age, so primary schools can use their PE and sport premium funding for teacher training and top-up swimming and water safety lessons. Those are additional lessons for pupils who may not have met the national curriculum expectations after their core PE lessons. As part of the PE and sport premium conditions of grant, schools must publish the percentage of year 6 pupils who meet the national curriculum expectations. The Department announced last year that we will be introducing a new digital PE and sport premium reporting tool, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green just mentioned. It will capture detail on how schools have used their funding. The form will also require schools to input their swimming and water safety attainment data. We are piloting the digital tool this summer, when schools will have the option of completing it prior to it becoming mandatory for schools to complete in academic year 2024-25.

Swimming and being near water can bring benefits for all children, which is why we are supporting pupils with special educational needs and disabilities to learn to swim and learn about water safety. The inclusion 2024 programme works with a network of lead inclusion schools across England, and has developed new resources that are available to all schools on the Swim England website’s inclusion hub. They include an awards programme, audit tools to facilitate discussions with pool operators, and advice on how to deliver inclusive swimming festivals.

Identifying risk and managing personal safety are central to personal, social, health and economic—PSHE—education, and schools can use PSHE to equip pupils with the knowledge necessary to make safe and informed decisions, which are a vital part of water safety. The PSHE Association is one of many providers to have developed resources in this area that schools can choose from. We will shortly be consulting on revised relationships, sex and health education statutory guidance, and those who are interested will have an opportunity to contribute their thoughts through that process.

A pool can be a valuable asset for a school and help to ensure access for all pupils regardless of background. The Department’s opening school facilities programme is spending up to £57 million to help schools to open their sport facilities outside the core school day, including on weekends and holidays. As of April 2024, the programme has supported more than 220 schools to open their pools to more users for longer. The programme is targeted towards the least active children and young people.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I thank the Minister very much for his words so far, but he has not quite addressed the point about inequality and topping up areas that are so far behind, where below 50% of children are able to swim 25 metres unaided.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education)

The hon. Lady makes a very important point about equality of access. We are very conscious of that when we talk about safety in particular; this is about not just sporting participation, but children’s safety. It is important that we seek to present that opportunity to everybody. It is our ambition to make swimming up to a certain standard available to everybody in primary school, and that is what we will continue to do.

On a related point, we welcome the efforts to find new ways to overcome barriers to providing high-quality swimming and water safety lessons, particularly for children who may have less access to swimming than others. It is important that pools are safe and appropriate for the activities they provide. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead talked about the trend of pop-up pools. My Department would be interested in hearing more about the work of his all-party parliamentary group and their discussions, and indeed those with Swim England, in that regard.

I welcome the opportunity for the Department to work alongside members of the National Water Safety Forum, in particular the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Royal Life Saving Society UK and Swim England. The Department contributes to the education sub-group by supporting the forum to understand the needs of teachers and improve the dissemination of resources and messages to schools.

The education sub-group recognises the important role of water safety messaging that is age and stage-appropriate for children. The group has recently published a new framework to provide a set of consistent core messages, which will help practitioners and organisations working at local and national levels that wish to develop, deliver and evaluate water safety resources and campaigns. The water safety code is the headline message of the framework and includes key learning outcomes from early years through to key stage 4.

Raising awareness of water safety and key messages is an important part of people understanding the dangers of water. The Department for Education is pleased to have supported the Royal Life Saving Society UK’s Drowning Prevention Week in recent years. Last year, over half a million children took part in schools. In June, we will support this year’s activity, which will focus on the water safety code.

I know how important swimming and water safety are for all children. Swimming can be one of many activities that foster positive wellbeing and can be a habit children take into adult life. We remain committed to working in partnership with sector organisations to support schools to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn to swim and know how to be safe in and around water.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.