The current national curriculum for primary PE came into force in September 2014 and states that all schools must provide swimming instruction in either KS1 or KS2. Students should be taught to swim competently, confidently and proficiently over a distance of at least 25 metres in a range of strokes (including front crawl, breast stroke and backstroke.) In addition to this, pupils should be able to perform self-save rescue in different water-based situations and, in line with the wider PE curriculum, should be offered opportunities to swim competitively.
Most primary schools (with the exception of independent schools) are supported in meeting the requirements of the PE national curriculum by PE and Sports Premium Funding. Payments are based on the number of pupils in years one to six, with a futher £120 million set to be paid out between now and 2020.
Funds can be allocated by each individual school as they see fit, but as the premium shouldn’t be used to deliver the minimum requirements of the national curriculum, it can be difficult for staff to know how best to use this funding. As monies should enhance the provision that already exists, some schools choose to invest in specialist swimming coaches for students or to supply swim training for their own staff. Often though, it is the basics that are not being covered.
A report published by The Curriculum Swimming and Water Safety Review Group in 2017 claims that over 250,000 children will leave primary school unable to swim and that 1 in 20 school are not providing any swimming lessons at all. The same report claims that only a third of schools are providing coaching in swimming that meets national curriculum criteria for KS1 and KS2, meaning that the majority fall short.
These findings are echoed by parents, two-thirds of whom fear that their child will leave primary school unable to save themselves in water, should they fall into difficulty. As forty young people aged under 19 drowned in 2016, an increase of 25% on the previous year, the failure of schools to meet targets could have a devastating impact on future generations.
Popular theory is that schools are focusing on subjects for which they are graded, with PE (including swimming) falling by the wayside as teachers struggle to meet demanding targets.
There is also no statutory requirement for primary teachers or support staff to undertake professional training for the teaching of swimming and water safety. With just 12 teacher training colleges currently offering swim training, there seems little hope that the situation will improve without drastic reform.
The government has been quick to extoll the benefits of swimming and to assert that primary schools should be doing more to meet targets. But with funding cuts to local leisure centres and many parents struggling to balance the books, it is no longer a given that all children will learn how to swim at a young age.