“I’m playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order”

(Comedian Eric Morecombe to then International Conductor Andre Previn. (Morecombe and Wise Christmas Show 1971)

“1 in 3 children leave primary school unable to swim 25 metres”

25 metres is the length of many local indoor pools.

We may have seen headlines like this a few times over the last few years. They inevitably prompt much soul searching amongst those who deliver curriculum swimming. It is, after all, one of three requirements in the National PE Primary Curriculum.

Sport England’s Active Lives Children and Young People, 2018, suggested that the figure was almost 1 in 4 and that meant some 138,000 children in that one year alone.

The intention may be to put pressure on Government, but inevitably Primary Schools find themselves in the spotlight along with National Advisory Bodies from the Swimming sector.

The Swimming Sector advises Government; they share responsibility for the situation.

Cant see the wood for the trees by Derek Matthews www.derekmatthews.co.uk/prints

Is it about being able to see the wood for the trees?

Quite recently it became evident that the idea that ‘school swimming’ was all aboutswimming 25 metres, was still central to what many schools and swimming providers delivering school swimming thought.

Most schools understandably rely on ‘specialist’ swimming teachers to advise them and often to deliver this element of the PE curriculum.

It also seems that the notion persists that the Key Stage 1 and 2 curriculum expectations also require swimmers to swim the four competition strokes featured in International Swimming. Personal Survival skills scenarios involving being part of a large group struggling to survive in open water are also often included.

All notions, to be fair, have featured prominently in the ‘tall trees’ of guidance policies and curriculum swimming ‘initiatives’ which have been introduced since the inclusion of swimming in the PE curriculum 27 years ago.

If you ask those who might just be best placed to see the wood – primary school teachers and parents – they tend to focus on those aspects of swimming which mean pupils will be safe, confident and happy in and around water.

Swim England Parents and Curriculum Swimming Research 2018 reported that:

  • 75 per cent of parents feel school swimming lessons accomplish a sense of achievement for the pupils.
  • 84 per cent of parents feel that swimming provides fun, and 60 per cent feel it helps their children make friends.

Every Picture Tells a Story

Sport England’s Active Lives survey 2018 (see above) also found that while 138,000 could not swim 25 metres, something like 219,000, roughly 1 in 3,could not perform self rescue.

SO, how hard has it been to see the wood for the trees?

  • Who knew? School swimming is truly inclusive in a way that out of school lessons tend not to be…
  • Who knew?  For a significant number of children, for reasons not too hard to find, ‘school swimming’ may be the only chance they ever get to have swimming lessons…
  • Who knew? As many as 86% of children in year 6, from more affluent families can swim 25 metres. This number drops to 42% for children in less affluent areas.

Who Knew?

After almost 40 years of teaching swimming and working with schools and teachers since 1994 I think there are questions to be asked. It is one thing to not see the wood for the trees, it is another to be found holding the wrong end of the stick…??

Perhaps it is time to change the conversation about School Swimming?

Who knows?

MAYBESelf rescue may just be a better focus for investment of time and resources?

The core aquatic skills and competencies for self rescue, taught effectively in a curriculum for swimming based on the principles of physical literacy, will also go a long way to laying the foundations for competent, confident and efficient swimming.                                   

(Going Horizontal)

All the right notes- probably- but not necessarily in the right order…?


1994: With PE as a Foundation Subject the Programme of Study for Swimming stated that Swimming in Key Stage One was non statutory, but offered guidance for schools who chose to teach it.  Key Stage Two required teaching pupils amongst other things “to swim competently unaided … (and) personal survival skills…”

1999: A new curriculum stated Swimming activities and water safety 9 Pupils should be taught to: (a) pace themselves in floating and swimming challenges related to speed, distance and personal survival (b) swim unaided for a sustained period of time over a distance of at least 25m (c) use recognised arm and leg actions, lying on their front and back (d) use a range of recognised strokes and personal survival skills. Specifics for acquiring and developing skills, selecting and applying skills, tactics and compositional ideas, evaluating and improving performance, knowledge of understanding and health were included with assessment criteria for 9 levels of attainment

2003 ASA (now Swim England) and Department for Education and Skills (DES) developed a pilot scheme called Top UP Swimming. It was aimed at children who were not able to swim 25metres unaided, “the statutory requirement set down at the end of KS2”

2004  the then DCMS launched a national PE and School Sport and Club Links initiative. PESSCL) The ASA launched their Swimming Charter. The programmes of Study had not changed much, they required “… pacing in floating and swimming challenges related to speed distance and personal survival; using recognised arm and leg actions’; the 25 metre swim was still there to be completed “swimming recognised strokes” (To most Level Two Swimming Teachers these are strokes which comply with the Laws of Sport for competitive swimmers.)

2007/8 – 2011 The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency also expected most children at the end of KS2 to be able to “Swim between 50 and 100 metres and keep swimming for 45 – 90 seconds; use three different strokes …” To meet the challenge, the ASA launched the School Swimming Improvement Programme. It featured two of its’ new initiatives, ‘FUNdamental Skills’ and Long Term Athlete Development for the first time.

There are many teachers and others who undertook curriculum swimming training 10 years ago and have not since updated.

2014; The last revision – and simplification – of the PE National Curriculum was just 7 years ago. The Department for Education retained the three requirements for swimming and water safety. The 25 metre swim still featured at the top of the short list…

A 2020 update saw no change. It re-stated that children should be taught to

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


“I only know 2 tunes; one of them is Yankee Doodle and other isn’t.”

(Ulysses Grant)