That’s All

Swimming and Water Safety has its’ own section in the National Primary PE Curriculum; just 5 lines of text.  

 How’s that for an ‘essential life skill’ that ‘saves lives’?

Swimming and Water Safety in the National Primary Curriculum for PE?”

Have a dig around in the PE cupboard …

By David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

If the National Curriculum were a Public Library’ you would probably have to ask where the Swimming and Water safety section was…

If it were a high street store, the Swimming and Water Safety Department would probably be down in the basement or up several flights of stairs in a small backroom.

The main purpose of the Primary School PE Curriculum is stated clearly enough.

It is all about enabling children to develop competence to excel in a broad range of physical activities; to be physically active for sustained periods of time; to engage in competitive sports and activities, and lead healthy, active lives.
Here’s how:

For Key Stage One:  they should be running jumping throwing catching, developing balance, agility, and coordination… participating in team games and performing dance… 
Then into Key Stage Two they should be developing flexibility, strength, technique, control, and balance… taking part in outdoor and adventurous activity challenges…comparing their performances with previous ones and demonstrating improvement to achieve their personal best.

And there it is! Tagged on at the end: Swimming and Water Safety. All schools must provide swimming instruction either in key stage 1 or key stage 2.[1]

Just THREE requirements are given for swimming instruction. Pupils should be taught to:

  • swim competently, confidently, and proficiently over a distance of at least 25 metres
  • use a range of strokes effectively [for example, front crawl, backstroke, and breaststroke]
  • perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations.

(“The art of swimming requires instruction.” -19th Century commentator)

It does not specify who is best placed to “provide (the)… instruction”. There is more flexibility on this than is often apparent.

The same can be said when it comes to interpretations of what each requirement involves.

All that schools can hope for is that someone can offer them guidance which is practical and relevant.

However, guidance, advice, and recommendations change.

For example: the programme of study lists three strokes, as examples of those we should teach when it comes to ‘swimming a range of strokes effectively’.  The range of strokes requirement has been there since 1994.

Lo and behold the suggested strokes are 3 of the four strokes which feature in competitive swimming, from local school and club level to international elite level.

If you come from a club and competitive swimming background, as many swimming teachers do, you will have clear ideas about what ‘strokes’ look like and how they should be taught.
Many out of school swimming programmes use Governing Body ‘stroke standards’ which are precisely those a swimmer would need in order to avoid disqualification in swimming competitions.

If you are someone who regularly enjoys recreational swimming [2], you might have a different perspective.[3]
My dad was one of them. He competed as a cyclist in his youth but in his 50’s he used to regularly swim 40 lengths in the morning before going to work. He had no problem keeping up with most likeminded swimmers in his lane.
He swam sidestroke.[4]

50 years on if you check out many a public lane swim, as well as the triathletes and some fitness swimmers you will see all kinds of hybrids and adaptations being used effectively.

Adaptation’ has made a late but welcome appearance in recent Swim Group guidance for schools.) [5] Being able to adapt strokes is what we do when we are having fun as well as what we have to do in changing circumstances and environments.

AND guess what else? In their guidance for schools, providers and teachers, sidestroke can now be found tucked in behind the ‘usual suspects’.

What next? ‘Old English’ or Double Arm Backstroke? Both were among my dad’s stroke repertoire – including the ‘Trudgeon’ [6] . OK forget the Trudgeon but double arm backstroke is a versatile and effective stroke. And OK it’s not that practical in a busy swimming lane.

So where are we now?

Well, like a breath of fresh air for some, the Swim Group Guide for Parents and Carers advises:
“Primary school swimming is not about learning the perfect stroke; it is learning about how to stay safe in the water.” Unlike external swimming lessons…. the school programme is about introducing children to swimming and water safety and giving them the knowledge to keep themselves safe”.

Are these signals of a change in the conversation about how swimming is delivered in the primary school curriculum? If so, who is listening?

It is a conversation that needs to take place at a much higher level, between Government, Governing Bodies and Schools. [7]

If it ever happens – and it should ….it will need to take place against the backdrop of current concerns about varying standards of provision. Surely, we can enable more children to meet the curriculum requirements and expectations for Swimming and Water Safety.

It should include feedback from schools where physical literacy now guides and drives successful delivery of their PE programmes. It should be clear where the requirements for swimming and water safety fit this model. It should make perfect sense to schools who are successfully engaging pupils in PE and perhaps contributing to a small but encouraging trend in an increase in physical activity levels [8] .

I believe the conversation must also include a discussion about the appetite amongst many children in school, for a competitive sport model which mirrors that of most swimming clubs.[9]

It needs ears more attuned to what the evidence is telling us about learning to swim at primary school. It needs voices that wont just go over old familiar ground in search of solutions.

We have to change the conversation before someone suggests that outcomes for Swimming and Water Safety should be delivered OUTSIDE the Primary PE curriculum.


[1] If you believe that ‘Swimming Saves Lives’ or that Swimming is an essential life skill’ or that “Swimming has endless benefits which include physical and mental wellness” and so on, then you might have expected something more substantial and on message. I sometimes wonder if the brevity and simplicity of the statements here reflect the view that there’s really not much to learning to swim. Or perhaps if it reflects a confidence and reassurance from sector specialists which has not translated into the success story they imagined. Or maybe someone just got lazy or bored?

[2] Recreational Swimmers also include all those who probably only swim when on holiday or at some point during a family swim. “Recreational swimming occurs when learning swimming and water safety is not the main objective of the activity… and may occur in a wider than usual range of environments.”

[3] Free dictionary: swimming stroke – a method of moving the arms and legs to push against the water and propel the swimmer forward. stroke – any one of the repeated movements of the limbs and body used for locomotion in swimming or rowing. WikiP: Swimming is the self-propulsion of a person through water, usually for recreation, sport, exercise, or survival. Locomotion is achieved through coordinated movement of the limbs, the body, or both. There’s lots more like this – have fun.

[4] Great 3 minute video clip.

[5] “Pupils should be able to use a range of strokes and make choices about the strokes they use to achieve different outcomes and be certain of success.”
“To do this they need to experience simultaneous and alternating strokes, on their front and back, and be able to adapt them for a range of purposes and intended outcomes.
Swimming strokes do not have to be perfect; the emphasis should be on effectively achieving the required aim rather than precision hand or feet movements.” Swim Group Guidance for schools, providers and teachers. 2019

[6] Swimming Strokes – And How They Evolved (1933): Swimming Detectives, spot that dropped elbow on Ms Huxley’s Front Crawl? And for all teachers- it seems that backstrokers have for ever been misjudging the end of the pool or the side!!

[7] ‘Swim Group’ made 16 recommendations after what was probably the most comprehensive review ever of curriculum swimming. I would like to think that instead of going round in the usual circles someone tried to get a conversation started which involved a fresh approach to ensuring that schools are more effective in delivering the 3 requirements. I like to think so but I don’t hold my breath. Just over two years ago a debate in the House of Lords visited all the old landmarks in the discussion- covering the same old ground in the same old way on a familiar tour of the territory. Groundhog Day…
It also interesting that independent state-funded schools such as foundation schools, academies and free schools do not have to follow the national curriculum. It is estimated that around 32% of primary schools are academy or free schools. They must offer a ‘broad and balanced curriculum” and the hope would be that swimming was included. Context, it is said, is everything.

[8] Active Lives Survey 2018/19 using guidelines recommending young people engage in moderate to vigorous intensity activity for an average of at least 60 minutes a day across the week, found a 4-5% increase in physical activities outside school for years 3 – 6.

[9] In March 2018 just 26.6% of all 11- 15 children were members of a club which played sport. (Statista)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s