HC Deb 21 June 1999 vol 333 cc901-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

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Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

Even at this early hour of the morning, I am pleased to have been given the opportunity to promote discussion about the state of swimming education in primary schools.

In most local education authorities, "Every child a swimmer" is no longer a statement of intent. In many LEAs, just how many children leave primary school able to swim is, as I shall show, an unanswered or even an unasked question. This is a timely debate, bearing in mind the current review of the national curriculum for primary physical education. I acknowledge the detailed information that I have been given by the Swim For Life campaign, which incorporates the Amateur Swimming Association, the Royal Life Saving Society and the English Schools Swimming Association.

My interest was prompted by a constituent, Mr. Gerry Hicks, a tireless campaigner for improved sports provision for children. He welcomed the reduction in the sale of school playing fields by the Labour Government and their commitment to sport generally, but has specific concerns, which I share, about swimming.

The debate is not new. In June 1991, a report by the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts showed that for 44 per cent. of 11-year-olds there was no swimming in the curriculum, and that in the three years preceding the report, almost 200 children had died in drowning accidents—80 per cent. of whom could not swim. The report recommended that every child be taught to swim and that the necessary resources be provided. In 1996, there were 60 deaths by drowning—so the figures have barely improved—yet an Amateur Swimming Association survey in 1997 showed that 23 per cent. of all schools recorded a decrease in their provision of swimming lessons.

Evidence of poor attainment has come more recently from another source. A humorous article in The Guardian in September stated that the Royal Navy had sent an SOS to the Government to help reduce the number of would-be sailors who could not swim—20 per cent. of recruits were failing the test of swimming the length of a pool in overalls and treading water for three minutes. That figure compares with a failure rate of 15 per cent. in 1984. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence has written to the Department for Education and Employment, saying that the Royal Navy would welcome any changes to the curriculum that result in more teaching of swimming in schools. I start with a strong ally for my case.

The present situation raises the question whether current policy is enabling every child to become a swimmer. I would like to think so, but we appear to be moving further and further away from that objective. I say "appear" because evidence is not easily available. The DfEE does not hold details of whether we are meeting the national curriculum requirement at key stage 2 to swim unaided, competently and safely for at least 25 metres". Parliamentary questions have met with the reply that the Department does not currently collect that information—nor does the Office For Standards in Education.

The 1997–98 Ofsted annual report says: Most schools are able to provide a reasonably balanced programme of P. E., including swimming lessons", but that is not based on statistical evidence. The office of Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools in Wales had rather more specific information. The 1996–97 annual report on Wales, under physical information, stated: Standards in Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 have improved significantly. The best standards are achieved in swimming, where nearly all pupils make satisfactory to good progress". In response to my inquiry, I was assured that the majority of pupils achieve the statutory target of swimming at least 25 metres competently". Given the lack of centrally held information in England, I wrote to all 151 LEAs asking what percentage of pupils who leave at key stage 2 are able to swim competently and unaided for 25 m, and which factors influenced whether that level of competence was reached. I had a good response, with more than two thirds—69 per cent.—of authorities replying. My thanks go to all LEA officers, some schools and a few concerned individuals who took the trouble to send information and ideas. It was much appreciated, given all the other demands on their time.

A few authorities have a very well established swimming policy and could give me detailed information, including statistics of each school's attainment at each pool. I refuse to name and shame, but I would like to name and fame the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, Cumbria county council and Salford metropolitan borough council for their high attainment, and Kirklees metropolitan council and Oxfordshire county council for their detailed statistics. From the responses that I received, 64 per cent. could give me the number of children who are able to swim 25 m at key stage 2, although a significant number of those replies were approximations.

Some authorities that did not hold attainment records were still able to give me details of the provision that they do or do not make. One authority provides 30 weeks' swimming a year at key stage 2 but has no record of the children's achievement. A minority of authorities had no records and, from the tone of the letter, it seemed that they did not regard swimming as an important part of the national curriculum. One wrote: the LEA does not collect information … we are currently very focused on meeting challenging targets for attainment in mathematics and English. Other authorities stated that because there has been no requirement to collect the data, they felt that there was no need to do so—a national curriculum requirement is therefore unrecorded. Some authorities, as a result of my letter, carried out impromptu assessments, while others did not have the relevant data because they are new authorities.

There was a huge variance in the responses. The answer to the key question, "What percentage of children could swim 25 metres?", varied from 98 per cent. down to as low as 28 per cent. Remember that this is just 64 per cent. of the 69 per cent. that replied, so that is less than 50 per cent. of all LEAs, and those respondents are likely to be those most interested in swimming.

LEAs pointed to five main difficulties in providing swimming lessons—the literacy hour, fair funding, the need for parental contributions, time and the lack of trained teachers. According to more than 30 authorities that I contacted, the literacy hour has had a detrimental effect on the provision of swimming lessons. One authority described the problem clearly: Schools are covering Literacy Hour in the morning and pushing most of their PE work into the afternoon—this brings pressure on existing facilities, particularly the school hall and also specialist facilities like swimming pools. What is significant is that a … provision made previously for pupils of all ages has now been reduced to provision for one or two year groups only. This tends to be Year 6. Another stated: School Heads are considering the provision of swimming lessons for one term, rather than the whole year". A vast number raised the issue of fair funding. One authority stated that swimming lessons had declined steadily since the introduction of local management of schools, but most specifically mentioned fair funding. Delegated budgets are not always spent on swimming, and the Amateur Swimming Association wants that element to be ring-fenced.

I have been given clear evidence of reduced provision. One authority pointed out that lessons had been cut to 15 half-hour lessons for key stage 2, not necessarily in year 6. In two authorities, swimming programmes stopped before year 6, and in both cases, fewer than 50 per cent. of children could swim 25 m.

Authorities stressed the problem of schools having to ask parents for voluntary contributions of up to £3.40 a week towards the swimming lessons. Parents were not happy to be asked to fund a statutory element of the curriculum. The latest research conducted by the Swim for Life campaign shows that 41 per cent. of schools sought a parental contribution, and the survey conducted by the National Association of Head Teachers in March revealed a similar percentage. A few authorities, mostly in rural areas, highlighted the problem of time, when 20 minutes in the water meant, with transport and changing, two hours out of the timetable.

Some authorities, including my authority, Bristol, pointed to the lack of qualified teachers. The Amateur Swimming Association sought sponsorship to remedy this problem, and BT has contributed £0.5 million for training primary school teachers. So far, 72 LEAs have teachers in training. I welcome that but, for the long term, I want swimming training to be reinstated in initial teacher training courses.

Another underlying concern, to which I shall return, is the need to modernise or replace many of the old municipal pools, which are reaching the end of their useful life.

Many authorities are anxious about the recommendations that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has made to the Secretary of State concerning changes in the national curriculum for PE. Following consultation between January and March this year, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority proposed that the requirement to swim 25 m be replaced with a requirement that did not stipulate a distance, but recognised that 25 m is not always sufficient to ensure safety in the water. I agree with that proposal, but if many schools do not keep records of the 25 m attainment, how many will record less measurable requirements?

The Swim for Life campaign notes that it is a dangerous assumption that swimming 25 m in a pool is a satisfactory definition of being able to swim, and reminds us that before the national curriculum, most schools expected children to be able to swim at least 100 m before they left primary school.

Almost 60 per cent. of the LEAs that could give me figures stated that more than 80 per cent. of children reached the 25 m requirement. However, given the lack of emphasis on water skills and safety, and the fact that 25 m is not a great distance, that is hardly cause for celebration.

The level of attainment in swimming at key stage 2 needs to be clarified and the standard raised, even though the evidence points to reduced provision. The double challenge must be met, because swimming is a vital, if at present undervalued, aspect of the key stage 2 curriculum. Swimming is a life-saver and of all sports it is probably the most beneficial for health at every stage of life. Swimming is also the gateway skill that gives access to other water activities, such as canoeing, surfing and sailing. It remains a relatively inexpensive sport, is good fun and can be for life.

My conclusions are that the current resourcing of primary school swimming, in terms of time, funding, professional staff and facilities, is a matter of serious concern. Swimming should be respected as a requirement of the national curriculum, in the same way as other subjects such as mathematics and English, and the expectation of achievement should be as high.

Some schools and LEAs record achievement now. In future, consistent monitoring should be required of all schools, LEAs and Ofsted. A rigorous inspection process is essential if schools are to be encouraged to provide an appropriate swimming programme. As regards funding, I believe that financial resources for swimming should be identified separately and that LEAs should have a duty to ensure provision.

In 1994 the Education Committee visited Japan, where the Government, having made swimming compulsory, had begun a comprehensive programme to ensure that every school had its own pool. I admire such commitment, and recognise that Sport England is making some new provision, but it is literally something of a lottery, although more proactive measures are being undertaken. The new funding for sports co-ordinators announced over the weekend by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is excellent news. I trust that it includes funding for swimming instructors, because swimming galas are also—dare I say it—floundering.

Bristol is typical of many towns and cities. It has a long and proud tradition of neighbourhood pools, dating back to the turn of the century. The council could boast that it provided the means for every child to become a swimmer. Nine pools remain, but are beyond the resources of the city council to refurbish or replace. It is to the city's credit that it is consulting with Sport England and the private and voluntary sectors on a progressive scheme to deliver swimming skills through a core curriculum in schools and the Bristol Community Sports Learn to Swim programme. I admire that imaginative option.

There can be no single solution. We cannot be prescriptive, but there should be a single objective. Bristol LEA used to boast, "Every child a swimmer, every swimmer a lifesaver." That is the standard for which I hope Bristol will again provide, and which I would like to see established nationally.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) on securing the debate and on the way in which she has presented her case. The Government welcome her remarks about swimming because, like her, we believe that swimming has a vital role. I recognise the interest of many hon. Members in this issue and pay tribute, with my hon. Friend, to the important work of the Swim for Life campaign, the Amateur Swimming Association and the range of organisations with which she has been working.

We believe that swimming is important, both for its intrinsic value as a sport and as an essential safety tool which we are determined all young people should have. It opens the way to a range of other water-based activities, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and is a critical element in the progress of healthy children who can develop themselves in all aspects of their lives. I agree entirely with her assessment of its value and with her objective that every child should be a swimmer.

I am particularly grateful for the trouble that my hon. Friend has taken in preparing for the debate the useful data that she collected from local education authorities throughout the country. She has raised serious issues, and I hope to be able to offer reassurance on a number of points, but those data are an important element of our ability to discuss the issue directly. I shall return to the particular issues that she raised about monitoring and data collecting, which are important in deciding how we are to proceed more generally.

As my hon. Friend said, we are currently reviewing the national curriculum. We are consulting, and I know that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take serious account of the points that have been raised in the debate. We agree wholeheartedly with the points that she made about the advantages of swimming. That is why swimming is a compulsory part of the national curriculum for primary age children and why we ensured that it remained compulsory when we introduced temporary flexibility to other areas of the physical education national curriculum in September last year.

Our proposals for the new revised national curriculum retain a compulsory swimming element for seven to 11-year-olds; provide an option for schools to teach swimming to five to seven-year-olds, because the earlier young people learn the essential skills the better; and provide the opportunity for skills to be further developed in secondary schools. I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the national curriculum requirement to swim 25 m unaided, in relation to its importance and its limitation as a measure of achievement. That distance is not the be-all and end-all of what swimming in schools should be about, but it is an important benchmark.

The proposals on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is presently consulting retain the stipulation that, by the age of 11, pupils should be taught to swim 25 m unaided. We propose specific requirements for swimming activity and water safety, and the proposals state: Pupils should be taught to:

  1. (a) swim unaided for more sustained periods of time using recognised arm and leg actions, and strokes on front and back, and then to increase the range of strokes and skills;
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  3. (b) pace their effort appropriately for challenges related to time and distance for floating and swimming, including swimming at least 25 metres unaided, and then to plan individually and collaboratively in groups to meet challenges related to speed, distance and personal survival;
  4. (c) recognise and describe the effectiveness of their own performance, and then to evaluate it and suggest ways to improve the quality of their performance and water safety."
I suggest that those requirements—they are set out in our proposals for the national curriculum, which provides a more comprehensive definition of what children should do—will enable them to develop their skills and help them to be safe in water in a wide range of different situations.

I of course acknowledge my hon. Friend's point that safety around water can never be guaranteed. Even experienced adult swimmers can drown in conditions in which swimming 25 m is very difficult, for example in rough seas. That is why we have specifically chosen in the review to give greater explicit prominence in the curriculum to water safety. I acknowledge that that may not go as far as she wants, but I believe that it is an important step in the right direction.

I hope that my remarks help to ease the concerns that schools and local education authorities have expressed to my hon. Friend, and I urge all those with an interest in the national curriculum to contribute to the consultation exercise, which the QCA is conducting on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is a genuine consultation and we shall listen not only to what my hon. Friend has said this evening, but to representations from those concerned from now until the end of July, when the consultation period ends. The QCA is working on guidance and schemes of work on swimming, as on other aspects of the curriculum, in consultation with schools and other key players, to ensure that proper guidance is provided in those areas.

My hon. Friend raised five other issues, which I should like to address: first, the literacy hour; secondly, fair funding; thirdly, voluntary contributions; fourthly; time pressures; and, fifthly, lack of qualified teachers. I shall take those points in the order in which she raised them.

On the effect of the literacy hour, I make no apology for the fact that the Government are concentrating their effort on literacy and numeracy. They are important requirements, which are essential to our efforts to raise educational standards. I hope that my hon. Friend will not be disappointed to hear that it is not the Government's intention to lower our emphasis on those subjects. They must be the top priority for all schools. However, I acknowledge her point that swimming and some other subjects are also very important in the primary school curriculum. That is why we believe that it is possible to meet national curriculum requirements for swimming in schools across the country, despite the obligations for literacy and numeracy.

I know that my hon. Friend was not suggesting that we dump literacy and numeracy. Some people argue that there is a polarity between focusing on basic educational standards in literacy and numeracy, and developing the wider curriculum, both in relation to swimming and in other areas. I do not believe that that polarity exists. I acknowledge that there are time pressures and problems, but schools can be and are effective in addressing those issues and providing swimming across the range.

On our analysis of the average taught time in primary schools, we believe that, even now, literacy and numeracy lessons leave enough time for swimming and other national curriculum subjects. It is important to encourage flexibility in timetabling in schools, to reduce pressure on facilities and to make time available in both mornings and afternoons, and we do not believe that swimming needs to be damaged. However, I acknowledge that we all need more data on that. Were there demonstrable proof that literacy and numeracy hours were somehow damaging that area, we would look at ways in which to deal with that effectively.

Secondly, my hon. Friend raised the issue of fair funding and its implications, and reported concerns about funding for swimming—particularly the implications of delegation. We received few representations from local education authorities about the funding of swimming last year when we had responses to our "Fair Funding" consultation paper, or later when we consulted them on the detail of the financing of maintained schools' regulations. That may reflect the point that she raised—that swimming is not a high enough priority in LEAs' preoccupations—but the fact remains that that was not what they said to us in the consultation.

As my hon. Friend said, the regulations are based on the premise that the cost of swimming lessons should be met from schools' delegated budgets, whether lessons are provided on site in schools' own pools, or whether off-site facilities have to be used. The regulations allow LEAs to include in their funding formulae factors that take account of schools' need to spend money on the hire of off-site facilities, or on transport to and from off-site swimming lessons. Transport can be an extremely important inhibiting factor. LEAs can also allocate additional funding to schools with on-site pools in recognition of the additional costs.

Our current view—although, again, I refer to the need for more data and acknowledge my hon. Friend's observations in this area—is that the regulations provide sufficient flexibility to enable LEAs and schools to meet the requirements of the national curriculum and, if they so choose, to go beyond them.. If there is clear evidence, through more data, of a need for greater flexibility in LEA formulae than the regulations currently allow, I assure my hon. Friend that we shall consider what more should be done in response to that evidence. We are also delegating funds in the context of a substantial funding increase for education, following the comprehensive spending review and the significant extra resources that have been allocated.

I share my hon. Friend's concerns about voluntary contributions. If voluntary contributions are a substantial part of fundraising for this important aspect of the national curriculum, we shall consider carefully what needs to be done under the fair funding agreements. We need evidence and data to come to a view, but I am reinforcing her principal point. It would be outrageous if a child were inhibited from studying swimming under the national curriculum because of a funding requirement, but I do not think that my hon. Friend was suggesting that. She was merely arguing that voluntary fundraising was an unacceptably large part of the funding in this area. I am happy to consider that issue in more detail.

I dealt with the time point in my comments on fair funding and the national curriculum review. Perhaps I could remark on my hon. Friend's observation on the announcements to be made about sports co-ordinators for schools. We hope that that approach, which will encompass swimming, will bring swimming and other sports clubs and schools closer together, so that we can liberate more time, energy and skill to developing that area. The jury is still out and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but I honestly believe that we are setting a course that will improve the situation and enable us to make advances in this area.

I hear what my hon. Friend says about the need for qualified teaching of swimming as a more substantial aspect of initial teacher training. As she knows, we are currently carefully considering what to do about the Green Paper on reform of the teaching profession, which we published last December. It makes a series of proposals about ITT and other aspects of teacher training, and includes extra burdens in a variety of areas. Her bid will be considered in that context.

I shall lastly deal with my hon. Friend's fundamental point about information. She suggests that there is a shortage of information about swimming in England. She set out the statistical background and explained some of the difficulties in collecting data. It is true that we do not collect centrally information about the number of key stage 2 pupils who can swim 25 m unaided, but Ofsted inspects swimming, alongside other aspects of the PE curriculum.

The current Ofsted findings are encouraging. The evidence suggests that swimming is one of the best taught aspects of the PE curriculum, that children often make rapid progress in national curriculum swimming, and that success rates are high. Our task is to ensure that we continue to improve that picture. That is why Ofsted, in conjunction with the Amateur Swimming Association, is currently considering a specific survey of swimming in schools during the next academic year to try to provide the systematic data that my hon. Friend has laid the way for in her survey, which she reported to the House this evening and for which she argues eloquently and powerfully, as is her wont. I hope that that specific survey will help to develop a clearer picture of current school swimming provision and achievement, and thus help us to decide what policy steps are needed to make what my hon. Friend described a reality in schools throughout the country. If my hon. Friend or other hon. Members have any views on how we could make that survey more effective, I would be delighted to listen to them.

I conclude by reiterating the Government's commitment to swimming in schools. We believe that the proposals in the new national curriculum reaffirm that commitment and that, for all the reasons that my hon. Friend has set out, it is critically important that the Government, schools and swimming bodies work together in partnership to maximise the range and quality of opportunities available.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past One o'clock.