A quick overview and discussion about aspects of recent guidance and recommendations or revisions for all three requirements.

Source: Swim Group Guidance Resources.

  1. ‘The 25 metre swim’.

Latest guidance is that successful performance involves a continuous swim of more than 25m.

  • The stroke or strokes should be “recognisable to an informed onlooker”.
  • The stroke should be “as strong at the end of the swim as at the start”.
  • Some part of the swim should be in deep water.
  • The whole continuous swim should be completed” without undue stress”.
  1. ‘Using a range of strokes effectively’.

Swim Group[1] guidance advises that:

  • The strokes “do not have to be perfect…”
  • Emphasis should be on “effectively achieving the required aim rather than precision hand or feet movements.”
  • Swimmers should be able to “make choices about the strokes they use to achieve different outcomes and be certain of success”.

Discussion We discuss this further elsewhere – See ‘That’s All’ and A Practical Model for Meeting the Outcomes of School Swimming.
According to some, the current understanding and practice of some swimming teachers who are contracted to deliver school swimming lessons, falls short on both of these requirements. Something confirmed by several primary school teachers recently in an online training workshop organised by a leading governing body.

It was suggested by the presenter that this may be due to the fact that many swimming teachers are more used to out of school, external provider led swimming lessons. OK with that. But, they fell well short when the proposed remedy included advising such teachers to lower their expectations when it comes to school swimming lessons. Or maybe it just came out wrong?

  1. Perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations.

Swim Group[1] Guidance states: Pupils should know the dangers of water and understand how to act responsibly when playing in or near different water environments. This includes understanding and adhering to national and local water safety advice, being able to use appropriate survival and self-rescue skills if they unintentionally fall in or get into difficulty in the water and knowing what to do if others get into trouble.

Discussion The curriculum programme of study requirement refers here to “self rescue”.  Swim Group guidance refers to “appropriate survival and self rescue skills.”
Probably because ‘survival skills’ have always been a popular option in school swimming lessons and perhaps in response to the vaguely expressed “different water-based situations.”
You could write a whole chapter about survival skills involving water!
And following that, another chapter, ‘Things to teach, about rescuing others’…

Who remembers taking clothes in to wear in a swimming lesson, pyjamas were a favourite, and pretending that their boat had sunk in the middle of the ocean, in the middle of the night?

Remember jumping into the water in pyjamas with a straddle jump from the side of the pool, pretending it was the deck of a sinking boat, trying to keep hair dry?

Did it seem surreal? Probably not. It was more spirit-of-adventure and fun.  These days Bear Grylls might be waiting out there somewhere in the dark.

In those scenarios, it’s always a calm sea on a calm night with no spray. We’re not alone, we were all on the boat together and fortunately we can all swim quite well. No panic, no fear and the water’s warm too. How lucky are we?
Miraculously and conveniently, there is always an abundance of flotsam and jetsam within easy reach.

Pretend it’s just you, alone, so it’s a HELP float. No, we’re all in this together – get into a HUDDLE.

There are several generations of parents and teachers for whom ‘survival’, and any talk of HELP and HUDDLE, is shorthand for ‘Personal Survival’.  

BUT CONSIDER…If you only start to think about it, how accurately can ‘open water’ scenarios be rehearsed in a warm indoor pool? It’s pretty nigh impossible to imagine REAL UK open water conditions, where the temperature may only be a breath taking 12° or 15°C.

Cold water shock poses the real and immediate threat to life. Who knew?[2]

Those who have actually experienced it compare it with being hit by a five-foot wave of bitterly cold water which can literally take your breath away while at the same time violently assaulting just about every sense in your body. You don’t scream let alone laugh and joke with the rest of your year 5 or 6 group.

At the same time as your breathing goes out of control, your blood pressure shoots up as your body tries to keep your blood warm by moving it towards the middle of your body (this is why you go pale when you’re cold).
Once your breathing is back under control, this is your window to get out of the water before the further effects of cold water shock kick in.
As your muscles cool, your strength, endurance and muscle control reduces to the point when you can’t swim any longer so can’t rescue yourself. The point at which you can’t swim any more is called ‘swim failure’, and if you haven’t got out of the water or managed to get hold of a buoyancy aid (like a lifejacket) by this time, you will drown.

(RLSS website)

It’s always a shocker to read that many fatal accidents in cold water involve people who can swim and that they happen just metres away from a place of safety.

Organisations that deliver Outdoor Adventurous Activities for example, whose participants’ activities involve being in or on open water, teach the HELP position and assume the swimmer is wearing a Personal Flotation Device (PFD)[3]

Ask most able swimmers in the comparative warmth and calm of an indoor swimming pool to demonstrate the HELP while not wearing a PFD and without anything similarly buoyant to hold on to. Similarly ask five or six to demonstrate the HUDDLE without PFDs. In the former, we need to make it very clear that it only works if they have something buoyant to hold onto. And for the latter, without PFDs the it is difficult to achieve the principle outcome.

Survey after survey reports that parents want their children to be safer in and out of the water. Government, Parliament, Press, media, Governing Bodies take up the cry!

But which water and which conditions are they all thinking about in their expectations for outcomes delivered through Key Stage One or Two curriculum swimming lessons?

And why do so many in the specialist ‘swimming’ sector persist with guidance that is arguably not achievable in most school swimming programmes?


We all want to take curriculum swimming seriously- but I think another, different conversation is long overdue, about whether what we expect from school swimming is practical, relevant, deliverable, realistic and achievable.

Or whether an appropriate core programme might look different.

I don’t think we should fear that quality or standards will drop, or provision will be too basic.
In my experience, primary Schools will always make provision for extending and going beyond the standards if that is what their pupils need. And we already have guidance for that… [4]

There is often talk of more statutory regulation and inspection.

We need a carrot not a stick.

And common sense to prevail when setting expectations.

Small Steps to Successful Swimming supports delivery of the National Curriculum requirements for Swimming.

It is best used as part of a teacher, pupil and whole school centred training model.

It supports and encourages primary school staff to become more involved in the delivery of swimming lessons to their own pupils at a number of levels.


[1] In May 2016 the national Swim Group, on behalf of the Government, established the Curriculum Swimming and Water Safety Review Group (“the Group”) to consider the challenges around delivering curriculum swimming and water safety lessons, and make recommendations on how to tackle these issues. The Group comprises representatives from across the education, sport and leisure sectors and included a technical group of frontline expert deliverers.

[2] The following is taken from the RLSS Website and found in RLNI advice and most water safety campaigns “..the truth is that unless they have a way of surviving past the point of swim failure (like wearing a lifejacket), you will drown before you become hypothermic.
Even in really cold water, it takes at least 30 minutes for you to become hypothermic. Crucially, hypothermia remains a risk even when you get out of the water unless you get out of the cold and warm up efficiently and quickly.

Is cold water shock really responsible for lots of drownings? It is difficult to identify if cold water shock was the cause of a drowning or not, but this is what we know:

  1. All waters around the UK are cold enough to induce the cold shock effects, even in high summer.
  2. Over 60% of drownings are of people who have ended up in the water by accident, so they’re normally very close to the edge, but something stops them from being able to get out safely.
  3. A sudden rise in blood pressure can be fatal for people with a pre-existing heart condition. Each year a number of people who are suspected of drowning, turn out to have had a heart attack.
  4. Studies show that people’s ability to swim in cold water is much less than their ability in a warm swimming pool.
  5. Survivors of drowning have described how the effects of cold water shock made it difficult for them to survive.

(RLSS website)

[3] Back in 2015 a partnership project group hoping to improve school swimming in Devon launched Devon Swim 100. Assessment activities included putting on and wearing a PFD in the first 5 of 6 milestones in the programme. Searching recently (Juy2021) I was unable to find an update; I wonder what became of it. I wonder if there were resource issues providing children with PFDs?

[4] There are now very useful resources and loads of great advice on RLSS and RNLI websites linked to annual campaigns. The messages are simple and realistic.

Respect the Water is the RNLI national drowning prevention campaign.

Swim Safe is a programme run every summer by the RNLI and Swim England to help thousands of children stay safe on the beach