Chester Trust chief vows to never make swimming a second class subject

“You wouldn’t teach maths or English and expect children to get it after four weeks, so why should swimming be any different?”

That’s the verdict of CEO Steve Docking, who says pupils at North West Academies Trust (NWAT) schools will never be cut adrift in the way so many children are, according to a new report.

Research conducted by Swim England and a group of MPs has warned that the majority of primary school children will be unable to swim a length of a pool by 2025.

Mr Docking, whose Trust runs six primary schools in Cheshire and another in Shropshire, believes that is a serious failure because swimming provides such superb health, fitness and confidence benefits to youngsters.

Pupils at NWAT schools start swimming lessons at reception age or Year 1, and well over 90% can swim at least 25m by the time they leave – and often much sooner.

“We would never teach maths or English with a hope that after four weeks they would get it, so why should swimming be any different?” he said.

“Let’s get all children swimming weekly. Schools should be proud to lead on this and there’s no reason it should be considered an elite sport.

“Schools will blame budget cuts or the lack of pool time – they will blame anyone but themselves for not providing swimming as a weekly activity.

“It’s a challenge for sure, but the rewards are huge in terms of pupils’ confidence, ability and health.

“I’m very passionate about this subject and I’d urge all schools to act to make sure the worrying projections in this report never come to fruition.”

As part of the national curriculum all primary schools must provide swimming lessons. Every pupil is required to be able to swim at least 25 metres, use a range of strokes and perform safe self-rescue.

But with pools closed and pupils not having face-to-face learning for much of the 2020-21 academic year, swimming lessons were ‘massively affected’ according to the report by the all-party parliamentary group for swimming and Swim England, the sport’s national governing body.

Before the Covid pandemic around 25% of children could not swim the statutory 25 metres when they left primary school.

Now the figures suggest that more than 1.1 million pupils are expected to leave primary between 2021-22 and 2025-26 unable to swim one length unaided.

But NWAT schools paint a different picture. Ellesmere Primary, in Shropshire, even boast their own 20m pool.

Headteacher Stuart Roberts said: “We’re at about 90%, and that’s only because some pupils haven’t been with us long enough.

“In fact, most children in Years 4-6 can all swim a length. We have a fabulous facility here and we make sure we reap all the many benefits from it for our children.”

Shona Valentine, who teaches PE at both St Martin’s Academy and Grosvenor Academy in Chester, said: “Swimming is a core subject for us. We swim weekly to ensure our children have the skills to be able to safely enjoy water both recreationally and for fitness.

“At St Martin’s we aim to have most of our children being able to swim 25m by the end of Key Stage 1 – this is the bare minimum. This year 100% of children in Years 5 and 6 have already achieved this.

“At Grosvenor Park the children now swim weekly and any children unable to achieve a 25m length receive an intensive course before they leave school.”

Mike Dixon, Headteacher at Acresfield Primary in Chester, added: “We only have three Year 6 children who are unable to swim 25m and they are part of a catch-up programme, so we are very confident we will reach the target of 100% before the year group leaves.”

Tom Freeman, PE teacher at Delamere Academy near Northwich, said: “We certainly don’t follow this national downward trend. Last year’s data shows we had 100% of children in Years 4-6 who could swim a length of the pool.

“The cost of swimming at our usual venues, and the transport to get there, is prohibitive at the moment due to the need to protect Covid bubbles within the school, so we organised a portable heated pool to be set up outside so all our children can take part in lessons, it’s that important to us.”

Fiona Whittaker, Executive Headteacher at Oak View Academy at Winsford, added: “Our children really enjoy their swimming lessons and look forward to them.  

“We do everything we can to ensure that our children achieve the 25m target as a minimum. We’re really pleased that, because of their swimming lessons with school, some of our families now regularly swim together too.”