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A call to armbands

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress of Northampton High School, reveals how independent schools can reverse the decline in children's swimming

Posted by Julian Owen | October 09, 2017 | Sports & Leisure

An inability to swim deprives young people of the sort of memories that older generations might consider a birthright. More than this, it might also deprive them of life itself. Swim England’s latest report notes that 63% of parents of Y6s do not believe that their children could save themselves in the water. Recent figures from the National Water Safety Forum suggest their fears are not exaggerated, with drowning fatalities in the under-19 age group last year increasing worryingly by 25%.

 Time and cost pressures on families, experts believe, are major causes of the decline in children’s swimming ability – parents struggle to find the time to take their children to lessons while the cost of swimming is becoming prohibitive for many. It seems obvious, then, that schools should fill the gap and ensure that every young person leaves school able to keep themselves safe in water.  And yet, we find that only 2% of schools surveyed last year delivered the government’s recommended 22 hours/year of swimming tuition while over 1,000 schools in the UK don’t offer any swimming lessons. Indeed, the number of children being taught to swim in school has actually dropped by as much as 50% in the last generation.

 This means that a whole generation of young people are being denied what should be an entitlement – a survival skill, a great form of exercise and a fabulous source of fun. As part of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), Northampton High is firmly committed to sport as a vital tool in enhancing wellbeing and as an excellent way to develop crucial skills for employability, such as endurance and self-discipline.

Here, surely, is a golden opportunity for the independent sector to make a life-changing (and lifesaving) contribution. Independent schools are relatively well placed to fulfil this vital function for pupils – 47% of them have their own swimming pool (compared with fewer than 4% of state schools). 

 At Northampton High, pupils have regular lessons from Reception and, through the GDST sports rallies, have access to regular national competition to enable students to train with and compete against each other and help pursue their talents even further. 

 Many independent schools are already doing a great deal through partnerships with local schools to plug the gaps in provision, as the numerous examples on the Schools Together website demonstrate.  At Northampton, our pool is used by five local primary schools and we run a very popular annual enrichment event for Y4 pupils in the community.

 We are uniquely privileged, too, to have Ellie Robinson, Paralympic Gold Medallist, in our student body who, alongside several others competing at elite level, offers the finest role modelling in this sphere. Ellie, who last June ran a masterclass for two disabled swimmers hoping to follow in her wake to compete at the highest level, summed up succinctly why swimming is so important for her – and for all young people.

“I think that it is really important to learn to swim as, first of all, it is a lifesaving skill and is a great tool to have. Swimming is also a brilliant way to keep fit, with its non-weight bearing and low-impact qualities. Whether you carry it on into a competitive environment or not it provides great rewards and a sense of achievement,” said Ellie. 

 This, I believe, should be a call to action for independent schools nationwide to work in partnership with local maintained schools to reverse the decline in children’s swimming nationwide.

A call to armbands, one might say.  


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