“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)

Headlines like these come and go.

They are usually a cue for soul searching, media soundbites and calls for action.

Being able to swim 25m is one of three requirements in the National PE Primary Curriculum. It is the length of most local leisure pools.


The intention of headlines and campaigns like these is presumably to shock, grab public support for lobby groups and put pressure on Government to act and remedy the situation?

But inevitably Primary School headteachers and staff find themselves in the spotlight and under pressure to resolve problems which were flagged 30 years ago, and which have not changed.

As if schools were not under more pressure than ever, there have been increasing calls for tighter OFSTED inspection and the introduction of tough sanctions (name and shame?) for not reporting pupil attainment in Swimming and Water Safety.

Enforcement tends in my opinion to be the option of last resort.

The National Curriculum Programme of Study provides no guidance on delivering swimming content.

Historically, the ‘Swimming Sector’ has advised Government on school swimming, and have had – and still have, responsibility for providing guidance, support and resources for schools and swimming teachers.

Not surprisingly this is then endorsed by the DfE.

The Swimming Sector therefore shares responsibility for the situation.

If only because they provide – and have provided – the ‘official’ narrative and interpretation of what are expected to achieve before they leave Primary School. Currently the stated expectations are set out in just 25 words, or thereabouts.

Historically and still today – for as long as I can remember – National Curriculum swimming and Water Safety is typically referred to as simply “swimming 25 metres”.

True for national campaigns, MP’s, Government Ministers and grassroots’ swimming teachers.

Sport England’s annual Active Lives Children and Young People Survey only uses the guideline that children should be able to swim competently, confidently and proficiently over a distance of at least 25m by the time they leave primary school as the measure for reporting on ‘Swimming Competence and Capability’ .

“Swimming 25 metres” has always been – and since 2014 still is  – at the top of the list of 3 the published ‘particulars’ or requirements for Swimming and Water Safety in the PE National Curriculum  for Key Stages One and Two.

(The other two, in traditional order of wood and trees are 2. *Use a range of strokes effectively, for example, front crawl, backstroke and breaststroke. 3. *Perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations)

They reflect the sports’ priorities back in 1994 – still shared by many who teach school swimming today.


Over the last 30 years, since swimming and water safety became compulsory in Key Stages One and/or Two, there has been a forest of guidance, resources, support, policies, initiatives and information gathering. It all occupies a shelf in bookcase. Trees and Trees and Trees….

In spite of what is claimed, until very recently the 25 metre swim and the use of a ‘range of strokes’ have been prioritised. Swimming is a Sport and learning to swim has historically been tied more closely to what swimming clubs required than to anything else.

In 2016 A School Swimming Review Group was set up amongst other things to “define what confidence and capability means in relation to school swimming ability…2 and to “advise how to ensure school swimming is delivered in a way that caters for all children. Swim Group subsequently published another small forest of over 100 pages of guidance in 2017/18.

All the right notes…certainly….

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

On their website and in their messaging the National Governing Body has more recently started putting the three requirements in a different order …

And guess what? Safe Self Rescue is now at the top.

In the last few years, in conversations about School Swimming, Water Safety has risen in importance.  

What is recommended for assessment of the 25m swim and of using “a range of strokes effectively” has shifted seismically too.

In a 1994 text intended to be used a practical handbook to accompany the document PE in the National Curriculum …the “critical features of a stroke”  guidance – while refreshingly including sidestroke and ‘Old English’ backstroke, all three of which are absent in the otherwise excellent National Governing Body guidance,(“All you need to know about swimming in the National Curriculum), the strokes featured are the four competitive swimming strokes recognisable to swimming coaches and the descriptors are essentially the same as those which competitive swimmers learn to avoid disqualification in racing events.

Recent guidance suggests that “strokes should be recognisable to an informed onlooker” (!!??) And that “strokes do not have to be perfect …but effective for intended outcomes…effectively achieving the required aim……”

Both of which it turns out are not only news to many swimming teachers and schools…but three of the four strokes are still there in support resources and the way to swim them is still the way to go for joining a swimming club and entering the world of speed swimming.

If you ask those who might just be best placed to see the wood for the trees – 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, developing a lifelong enjoyment which can contribute to positive health and well being.



Just how hard can be to see the wood for the trees? To play the right notes in the ‘right’ order??

  • 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? In year 7-8 just 50% Black children or 56% of Asian children are able to swim 25m? (95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children do not swim!)
  • 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? That school swimming lessons have different outcomes and require different approaches to privately financed out of school swimming lessons?
  • Who Knew? That many primary schools do not offer swimming lessons at all? That the number of lessons being offered has been reduced in many schools?
  • Who knew? That school budgets struggle to meet the costs of pool hire, swimming teachers and transport to a pool?
  • Who knew? The pressure which taking a whole morning out of school for swimming puts on an already crowded and heavily tested curriculum?
  • Who knew that just over half of all parents (and I suspect even more teachers) think it is important the children “…can swim safely if they got into difficulty” That a third think being able to swim will increase their children’s water confidence… and that swimming is a “life skill “
  • Who Knew? That in 2023 just 5 drowning fatalities were reported for under 10’s (this will include under 5’s !!) There were 23 in the 15-19 age group, 18 were male. 71% of UK teens who drowned were reported to be swimmers. For all ages, one was in a commercial swimming pool, the other 235 accidental fatalities were outdoors, in open water inland or coastal.[1]
  • Who knew? According to Sport England, in 2018/19 swimming was the 3rd in a list of 10 most prevalent activities for children in Key Stage (KS) One (5-7 year olds) , and 7th for 7-11 year olds. (KS 2) In 21/22 [ following the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic], it had dropped to 5th KS 1 but now missing from the list for 7-11 year olds. For 22/23 it was 4th for KS 1 and still missing for 7-11 year olds. Swimming is optional in Key Stages Three and Four. (11- 16 year olds)

The Band sounds best when it is playing all the right notes in the right order…

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…??

[1] https://www.nationalwatersafety.org.uk/media/1407/waid-uk-2023-summary.pdf


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.