Making water safety mandatory: Will schools sink or swim?

Today’s calendar arrival of summer appropriately coincides with the arrival of many weeks dedicated to water safety.

Dampening a celebration of water safety

From the 21st-27th of November, aquatic and leisure centres around the country celebrated National SwimSAFER Week, and we are currently approaching the end of Water Safety Week in Victoria (also celebrated in the Northern Territory in the last week of September).

As part of Water Safety Week, the Australian Swim Schools Association will be conducting its inaugural ‘No Drown Town Week’. It promotes connecting the three ‘levels’ of the community – personal, local and national – to work towards a uniform safety goal. For a full deconstruction of the campaign, schools should watch the No Drown Town concept video.

All of these events generally aim to raise awareness about water safety. As the weather warms and greater proportions of the population venture back into the water, there is a clear reason for ever-increasing attention on swimming skills and aquatic safety.

In the recent Victorian Drowning Report, statistics revealed that 43 people drowned in the previous year, a 4-person increase on previous annual statistics. Drownings of persons over 65 increased 40%, prompting calls for a public awareness campaign and efforts to improve water safety and lifesaving skills among the ‘Grey’ portion of society.

However, mastery of basic swimming skills, like most skill development, becomes more difficult in adulthood. Whether it be for biological or psychological reasons (and there is some disagreement as to the relevance of either), “trusting the water takes longer when you’ve lived longer”.

As a result, the best opportunity to  ensure individuals are taught and retain water safety knowledge and swimming expertise is during childhood. And under new changes to the Victorian curriculum, the responsibility for taking the plunge into a new era of community water safety is being placed squarely on the shoulders of schools.

Learning how to learn-to-swim – the new Victorian curriculum

For Victorian students, swimming ability is now placed on the same mandatory platform as studies of Mathematics and English.

From 2017, all children will now have to achieve the Victorian Water Safety Certificate by the end of Grade 6 as part of the newly developed State Government curriculum . This requires students to be able to swim a mandatory minimum of 50 metres and demonstrate water survival skills and rescue knowledge. While students who don’t meet the criteria won’t be held back, schools will be under pressure to bring them up to the mandatory standard.

The curriculum overhaul was precipitated by a Coronial report into the death of a 9 year old in 2012, which had recommended making swimming and water safety education mandatory across the Victorian school landscape. Further impetus was created by recent Life Saving Victoria research, which found that 60% of students could not swim, or stay afloat, for as much as 2 minutes, even after they had left primary school.

While many schools already implement strong swimming programs, some are very inactive in an aquatic sense, with 12% of surveyed teachers reporting that their school did not organise any swimming programs at all.

As a result, many have welcomed the new benchmarks.

A financial belly-flop?

Despite setting a new mandatory minimum standard, the Victorian Government has allocated no funding to assist schools with organising swimming lessons. While there is a $148 million ‘Camps, Sports and Excursion Fund’, this is only designed to assist vulnerable families by allowing their children to participate in school activities.

According to The Age, government schools will need to absorb swimming lesson costs which would previously be covered by parents and carers. This is because under Victorian legislation parents cannot be charged for the standard curriculum program and the mandatory swimming component is clearly placed within curriculum physical education.

With costs estimated at $65-80 per student annually, these changes have the potential to tighten the budgets of schools at all levels of education and many may flounder under the new financial pressure. One principal suggested that to ensure the 630 students at their school complied with the new minimum standard, up to $30,000 would need to be allocated specifically to swimming lessons which had previously been optional and parent-funded.

Are these standards treading new water?

Requirements of mandatory swimming assessment and strict education requirements are not new concepts for Australian schools.

In the ACT, the School Swimming Carnivals Procedures and Checklist introduced in 2014 requires a strict supervision ratio during swimming events and for all pools to be five-star certified.

Under the Australian Royal Life Saving Society’s Water Safety Guidelines for Unstructured Aquatic Activities, all students who participate in ‘unstructured’ aquatic activities must complete a water survival challenge beforehand – a proficiency test for a minimum standard of swimming and survival skills. The Survival Challenge is conducted by state schools in NSW and the Northern Territory and has been recommended to others around the country.

However, the curriculum changes in Victoria go far further than other procedures, turning a 25 metre swim unassisted into 50 metres as a minimum standard. This demonstrates that the minimum requirements for swimming and water safety are on the rise, which has a clear impact for the organisation of school swimming activities.

From freestyle to dog-paddle – current swimming in schools

Swimming is already a core component of many school’s physical and health education programs and activity schedules. It is a necessary requirement for any water-based sport such as water polo and diving and adequate capability is arguably the strongest control against injury in aquatic activities such as canoeing, kayaking and sailing.

The risks posed by swimming vary depending on a number of factors, the most significant of which are location and intensity.

According to Education Guidelines around the country, swimming can be conducted in enclosed swimming pools and in protected beach locations but may also be undertaken in confined inland waterways. Water conditions, quality and transparency can vary markedly between these locations.

While arguably the most common form of swimming is competitively during an annual swimming carnival or organised lesson programme, students may also participate in structured lifesaving activities or simply in ‘unstructured’ leisure and recreation activities. Each of these introduces different supervision risks and requirements for teachers, particularly if there are only a limited number of lifeguards available to assist.

Turning the tide on water safety

Introducing a mandatory minimum standard for swimming capability and awareness, while potentially costly, is a clear way to improve overall student safety and has the potential to avoid tragic incidents (such as those previously reported here and here) happening in the future.

Furthermore, regular swimming lessons do not only benefit general safety and technical ability, they also provide measurable benefits to a child’s health, fitness, and motor skills and influence their general wellbeing. Mandated lessons may also enable certain students to participate in physical activity who may not otherwise have access, for example, due to socio-economic background.

Schools around the country have a key role to play in improving water safety standards amongst the general population.

By strengthening their swimming programs and introducing stricter requirements for water safety standards, schools can imbue their students with improved knowledge and skills which they can carry into adulthood and contribute to a potentially lifesaving community trend.


Does your school implement a swimming program for students?


About the author

Kieran Seed is a School Governance Reporter. He can be contacted here.

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