HC Deb 05 June 1991 vol 192 cc282-4 3.40 pm
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Education Reform Act 1988 in order to make special provision for the teaching of swimming in maintained schools; and for connected purposes. I am sure that the many hon. Members who are keen swimmers will need no convincing of its value as a recreational activity. It is of more benefit to a person's overall fitness than any other sport. It exercises the whole body and can be paced to individual requirements and development. It is particularly suited to children and adults with special needs, such as those with asthma and spina bifida, to choose but two examples.

Swimming is a health-promoting exercise that is virtually free from injury. It is the only activity that scores maximum points on the key criteria set out by the Health Education Authority for providing stamina, suppleness and strength. What really marks swimming from other sports, however, is that the ability to swim, and the knowledge and possession of water safety skills, is a critical factor in reducing the risk of drowning.

Research by the Royal Life Saving Society and the Amateur Swimming Association shows that, throughout all age groups, the risk of drowning is more significant for non-swimmers and that among the 10-to-24 age group non-swimmers are three and a half times more at risk than swimmers. In the past three years, almost 200 children under 15 have died by drowning, 80 per cent. of whom could not swim.

With the growth in water-related sports such as canoeing, water skiing and sub-aqua, it is more important than ever that every child learns to swim. In spite of that, many schools and local authorities do not have a requirement to provide swimming lessons, and the level of provision is declining.

The three national governing bodies of swimming—the Royal Life Saving Society, the Amateur Swimming Association and the English Schools Swimming Association—became so concerned about that trend that they formed a Swim for Life campaign, with the aim of securing the teaching of swimming by all schools. In 1988, the campaign surveyed local authorities and found that more than half had no clear policy on the teaching of swimming, while more than 80 per cent. could not meet the basic standards for the provision of swimming lessons. A more recent survey by the Secondary Heads Association confirms the trend and shows a further reduction, with fewer than half of 11 to 15-year-olds having any curricular swimming.

The inequality of swimming provision cannot simply be ascribed to resources or to the political complexion of a council. High and low-spending councils have been cutting swimming lessons. Unfortunately, because it is not statutory and can be cut without going into legal obligations, swimming is perceived by many local authorities as a marginal area.

The unacceptable and declining level of swimming provision is highlighted by comparison with other European countries. The French have a programme of building hundreds of pools and have introduced comprehensive swimming instruction, which is already showing dividends in improved standards. In west Germany, every child leaving school can swim. In the Netherlands, swimming lessons are given to children aged seven or over, and there are standard tests to determine their ability. It is reasonable to aim for all British children to achieve at least minimal swimming standards by the time that they leave primary school.

With physical education on the national curriculum as a foundation subject, we have the means to ensure that every child receives proper tuition in swimming and water safety—not just those whose education authorities are more enlightened. The working group set up to advise on the form that PE should take in the national curriculum published an interim report in February, which concluded that swimming is too important to leave to chance and should be an entitlement under the national curriculum". It went on to make the strong recommendation that all children should be able to swim and possess water safety skills by the age of 11.

However, the Government are concerned about resources and have firmly told the working group to make recommendations which can be realistically related to the general level of funding which can reasonably be expected to be made available. At a recent conference organised by the Swim for Life campaign, the Minister for Sport clarified the Government's position: There is no doubt that the ability to swim saves lives and provision of swimming tuition can be justified on this ground alone. That is welcome; but my hon. Friend went on to say: We simply cannot impose a duty on schools which they are unable to deliver". That is a reasonable point, and clearly we need to consider the practical implications of a fixed educational requirement that every child should be taught to swim.

The Swim for Life campaign discussed that issue at its conference. A facilities consultant to the Amateur Swimming Association estimated that, with proper targeting of existing facilities and resources, it would cost £4.8 million to teach every 10-year-old to swim. That approach is sensible, as it recognises that resources must be allocated more evenly if there is to be a swimming requirement.

Clearly it is wrong that some children receive extensive swimming tuition and recreational swimming while others receive nothing at all. 11£4.8 million is all that stands in the way of the right of every youngster to learn to swim, that seems a small price to pay when measured against the cost of hundreds of children's lives. It is a small part of the multi-billion pound budget of the Department of Education and Science.

The ASA assessment highlighted the cost of not teaching children to swim. Every child who learns to swim then visits public pools, which gain revenue from the visit. Conversely, pools will lose revenue if swimming lessons continue to decline. It was estimated that, if every 10-year-old were taught to swim, that trend would suggest a potential gain of about £138.5 million—far in excess of the cost of the lessons.

My purpose in introducing a Bill to require all schoolchildren to be taught swimming and water safety is to promote the implementation of the working group's recommendation and to ensure that the Government's concern about resources can be met. My Bill is similar to the one being ably steered through another place, with strong cross-party support, by my noble Friend Lord Norrie. It would require maintained schools to teach swimming so as to ensure that all their pupils could swim and had an understanding of water safety. The Secretary of State would be required to set attainment targets and programmes of study under the national curriculum. That goes beyond the existing requirements of the Education Reform Act, which leaves it to the Secretary of State's discretion whether swimming and water safety should be specified as part of PE under the curriculum.

I fully appreciate the Government's concern that finding the resources to implement the Bill could be a problem. The position is made worse by the fact that there is so little information about existing facilities. That is why my Bill would require the Secretary of State to conduct a survey of swimming facilities available to schools, and would give him the power, for a transitional period of five years, to exempt schools from the requirement if he were satisfied, on the evidence of the survey, that lack of swimming facilities would place an "unreasonable burden" on them. That means that rural schools, where pupils cannot easily reach pools, may be exempted. However, the Bill specifically states that every child must still be taught the principles of water safety and that such schools may be exempted only for the transitional period of five years.

The life-saving features of swimming also make it essential that children should be taught to swim to minimum standards. My Bill would require the Secretary of State to prescribe targets. The national curriculum working group has already recognised that by recommending that pupils should be able to swim a minimum distance of 25 m, possess water safety skills and have a sound knowledge of water—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Is the hon. Lady coming to the end of her speech? She has had her 10 minutes, but she may complete her sentence.

Mrs. Winterton

Thank you for the warning, Mr. Speaker.

In conclusion, this is a small Bill that will have a big impact if passed. It would be enormously popular throughout the country and is supported by both parents and teachers. In due course, I hope that the House will support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Ann Winterton, Miss Kate Hoey, Sir Hector Monro, Mr. Denis Howell, Sir Neil Macfarlane, Mr. Menzies Campbell, Mr. Richard Tracey, Mr. Tom Pendry, Mr. Simon Coombs, Mr. Mike Watson and Mrs. Sylvia Heal.