children swimming

Scotland can’t Swim

Kaitlin Dryburgh – 23 June 2022

Scotland – A Nation (with the most successful Team GB swimmer ever) that can’t swim

Some of you may not be familiar with me but I’m Kaitlin the Policy and Communications Coordinator here at Common Weal and I have been a level 2 swim teacher for almost a decade now, and I currently feel like Scotland is barrelling towards a very worrying situation.

A perfect storm is currently at play with the state of swimming curriculum and swimming pools in our country. Let me be very clear though, I’m not referring to our performance programme, which in contrast has never been better. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics saw Scotland’s Duncan Scott become the most successful British/Scottish swimmer in history and investment is plentiful and increasing. So let me provide some context.   

Currently Scotland is the only country within the UK that doesn’t include swimming lessons in their curriculum and is without direct government funding for primary school pupils to learn to swim. Although most local authorities do allocate some of their budget for swimming lessons, coverage varies between councils and even within catchment areas with some children having all their swimming lessons axed, and some councils only providing for those who can’t swim at all. This of course disproportionately effects those in lower income areas who will be less likely to afford additional lessons outwith school. I talked with Hannah, a swim instructor providing lessons to primary schools for a local council. She has seen an attempt to create a more level playing field by providing a greater block of lessons over primary 4 & primary 5 to those schools situated in the most deprived areas, whereas those in wealthier areas may expect to have a smaller block of lessons only in primary 5. However, she adds this still isn’t enough as the split in ability is overwhelming. She believes that many in those deprived classes are at a much higher risk of drowning if they were ever to get into difficulty, as non-swimmer rates are so high. Additionally, Hannah believes that the allocated time she has with most pupils is not enough to actually teach someone how to swim and, in some cases, she is alone teaching 16 pupils at a time, all with different abilities. 

The children going to school in this area are fortunate as some are not as lucky: some primary school children in Dundee were left without lessons in 2018 as schools decided to pull them. This struggle to fund and justify swimming lessons to an extent can be attributed to a 2015 government decision to end a £1.72 million scheme that funded school lessons. The call for swimming lessons to be part of the Scottish curriculum has been a quite slow-burning battle, with the occasional peak of interest from the wider public. In reaction to fresh calls for primary school swim lessons in 2017 the former minister for sport, Aileen Campbell pointed out that the government although wouldn’t be reinstating the scheme, it had increased the average the average time of PE lessons. That is a great accomplishment, however I am certain your life will never be dependant on how well you can play rounders or shoot a basketball. Sportscotland the national agency for sport responded by reiterating that it had invested over £5 million in Scottish Swimming (the governing body for Scottish Swimming) between 2015-2019, and it continued to increase investment over the coming years. However, when looking closer Scottish swimming dedicated 45% of their £1.3 million 2021 investment to their performance programme (approximately 60 people in their senior team) – those Olympic medals come at quite a cost it seems.

Perhaps not surprisingly this has resulted in 40% of children in Scotland leaving primary school unable to swim, and this number could even be higher. Unfortunately this number disproportionately effects those in the most deprived areas of the country, and as the cost of living increases so will the number of families who are unable to send their children to swimming lessons. 

It has been hard to ignore the news stories of people drowning in the past couple years, especially in the summer months. Last year sadly saw 105 die in Scottish waters, when compared to the UK rate of drownings per population, Scotland is double. Put in a European context, Scotland has the second highest drowning rate in any high-income European country. We have access to some beautiful bodies of water, some that other countries can only dream of. However, if recent trends are anything to go by there will be an increase in their usage. Staycations are on the rise, outdoor swimming and water sports are proving to be extremely popular, and unfortunately due to climate change we are experiencing increasingly hotter summers. What we don’t want to accompany this is a year-on-year increase in drowning rates. The Scottish government did produce an action plan in 2018 in the hope of halving accidental drownings, unfortunately this never included the provision of lessons and as of last year the number of accidental drownings increased.   

Covid and the lockdowns of course effected just about every aspect of daily life and continues to have many ramifications. However, one of the first places to shut their doors at the start of the pandemic was swimming pools and they happened to be one of the last places to open again. This meant that for some children they didn’t have lessons for two years, many didn’t come back after the pandemic, and many are still on waiting lists. Calvin Brown who owns and runs a swim school in Edinburgh with approximately 900 pupils had to struggle with local authorities to open swimming pools. He found that the local council didn’t find it pressing that almost 1000 children had missed out on lessons for almost two years, “all they wanted to do was bury their heads in the sand, even when we pointed out that at one point in the year there were more drownings than Covid deaths”. Private swim schools are crucial for Scotland’s children learning to swim as local authorities don’t have the capacity to teach everyone in their local area. Calvin has had to close waiting lists and turn away parents knowing that it could be closer to 2 years before he can offer them a space, and for once he explains they have had to prioritise older children coming to swimming lessons over their youngest swimmers. Both Calvin and Hannah agree that Covid has stunted all ages and their abilities to swim. 

Unfortunately like many industries right now there is a struggle to find and hire good employees, the swim sector is no different. Ryan, an operations manager for many swimming pools in a local authority, explains that they are battling to hire new teachers, to the point that they are having to cancel lessons, Calvin is struggling with the exact same issue. With the difference in wages it is not surprising that a qualified swim teacher will most likely choose to work for the private company that pays more rather than work for their council. Swim teaching is a great profession (yes, I am biased!), so why is there a lack of teachers? It may have something to do with the £550 price tag Scottish Swimming has set for their course. If you are successful you can apply for a £100 subsidy, but you would also have to have several weekends to spare to complete this, and for many this is just not viable.  

In the past couple of months we’ve seen the price of fuel spiral out of control and this has thrown the future of many swimming pools into jeopardy. Just this week a swimming pool in Aberdeen which runs a fairly comprehensive programme of swimming lessons announced it will close in August as their energy bills have started to hit £0.5 million. They hope to open again but are unsure. In their statement they state that they are certain that all children will be moved to other locations around the city and with a new pool opening after renovations there should be no one missing out. However that can’t be when there is one pool out of action, surely this will place children wanting swimming lessons in the near future unable to gain a space. Unfortunately, this may just be the beginning, CompanyDebt an insolvency aid organisation has stated that without government intervention we could see 79% of UK community pools cease to operate by the end of this year, perhaps the government will take notice when Mr Scott doesn’t have a place to train. Yet again, this will disproportionately effect those in lower income families who rely on local authority lessons in their local community pool, who won’t be able to access private lessons in privately owned pools, some of which can charge £50 per lesson. Although Ryan a regional operations manager has stated that the pools he manages are not currently at risk, the council has been in contact to see what could be done in the near future to decrease energy bills, and unfortunately it does come in the form of colder water.  

It just so happens that this week is the UK’s national drowning prevention week which makes us aware that there are many dangers when swimming, some to an extent can’t even be taught when in an indoor pool. It also shines a light on the inequalities in swimming, for example 80% of children from minority backgrounds in the UK don’t know how to swim. Swimming is not just an out of school activity – it’s a life skill, cutting funding for lessons is a false economy, and will cost us greatly in the coming years. It shouldn’t be a privilege to swim, it should be a skill every citizen has and something they can use throughout their lifetime

Therefore I am finding it increasingly difficult to celebrate Scotland’s swimming achievements, when I know we could be in the process of creating a generation that can’t swim. If Scotland truly is unable to invest in the education to keep its citizens safe and act on the current worrying situation, then I feel there is trouble head. The bottom line is I don’t see how Scotland can continue to fund Olympic medals when we’re letting others drown.

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