Swimming: More and more pupils fail to reach 25m curriculum target

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Splash: Year 5 pupils from St Martin's Academy in Chester. The school aims to ensure that all pupils can swim 25m by the end of key stage 1

The proportion of children who cannot swim 25 metres by the end of primary school – which was already one in four pre-Covid – could rise dramatically in the coming years, MPs have warned.

The impact of lockdowns on school swimming and the closure of swimming pools means that by 2025/26, an estimated 1.2 million children will have left primary school unable to swim the statutory 25m.

The projection has been made in a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Swimming (APPG) and Swim England.

Even before the pandemic, a quarter of children could not swim the statutory 25m by the end of year 6. The report says this will rise to 57 per cent of year 7s by 2025/26 unless some form of catch-up provision is put in place.

Swimming and water safety have been a statutory element of the national curriculum for PE in England since 1994. All primary schools must provide swimming and water safety lessons in either key stage 1 or 2 and every pupil is required to be able to do the following:

  • Perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations.
  • Swim competently, confidently and proficiently over a distance of at least 25m.
  • Use a range of strokes effectively, such as front crawl, backstroke and breaststroke.

However, the report – The impact of coronavirus on school swimming and water safety – estimates that while 59,000 children did participate in swimming during the summer term 2020, this figure should normally have been as high as 307,000.

Worse still, this academic year it estimates that 1.5 million primary children – almost half of whom are in years 1 and 2 – will have missed out on swimming education.

Catherine West MP, chair of the APPG, said they would be raising the matter with the Department for Education as “a matter of urgency”.

She added: “Swimming and water safety is a vital life-skill that every child should have. Aside from the numerous health and wellbeing benefits of swimming, it is no exaggeration to say that learning how to swim, and about the importance of water safety, are skills that could one day save a life.

“With drowning sadly remaining one of the most common causes of accidental death in the UK, this is more important than ever.

“Even before Covid, we were seeing some worrying inequalities between the outcomes for Black children and children from other ethnically diverse communities, as well as children from less affluent families.”

One group which is bucking the trend is the North West Academies Trust, which has nine primary schools in Cheshire. CEO Steve Docking is passionate about swimming’s place in the curriculum.

He explained: "We would never teach maths or English with a hope that after four weeks they would get it, so why should swimming be any different? Let's get all children swimming weekly. It's a challenge for sure, but the rewards are huge in terms of pupils’ confidence, ability and health.”

Pupils at the schools start swimming lessons at Reception age or in year 1, and more than 90 per cent can swim at least 25m by the time they leave – and often much sooner.

Tom Freeman, PE teacher at Delamere Academy, one of the NWAT schools, said that while the cost of swimming at the usual venues and the transport to get there is “prohibitive at the moment due to the need to protect Covid bubbles within the school”, they have organised a portable heated pool to be set up outside so that all children can take part in lessons.

He added: “It's that important to us. Last year's data shows we had 100 per cent of children in years 4 to 6 who could swim a length of the pool.”

Shona Valentine, who teaches PE at both St Martin's Academy and Grosvenor Academy in Chester, added: "Swimming is a core subject for us. We swim weekly to ensure our children have the skills to be able to safely enjoy water, both recreationally and for fitness.

"At St Martin's we aim to have most of our children being able to swim 25m by the end of key stage 1 – this is the bare minimum. This year 100 per cent of children in years 5 and 6 have already achieved this.

"At Grosvenor Park the children now swim weekly and any children unable to achieve a 25m length receive an intensive course before they leave school."

Mr Docking added: " I'd urge all schools to act to make sure the worrying projections in this report never come to fruition."

Jane Nickerson, chief executive of Swim England, acknowledged the pressures facing schools but urged them to prioritise swimming and water safety.

She added: “These children are in urgent need of swimming lessons and general swimming participation or else we will see a huge knock-on effect to their ability that would continue into adulthood.

“It’s vital that pupils who have missed out on school swimming and water safety lessons because of the pandemic have the opportunity to catch-up.”


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