Increase curriculum content about water safety as part of swimming lessons

As a country we see many water-related fatalities every year. We see many more call outs to water related incidents. Throughout lockdown year our coastguards were tasked to almost double the call outs than in the previous year. Our children NEED to learn about Cold water shock & rip currents.

This petition closed on 9 Sep 2021 with 108,202 signatures


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I've been a water safety campaigner for nearly 10 years. In 2011 my 1st born son went for what he thought was an innocent swim, sadly it cost him his life.

Life's never been the same.

Many people lose their lives due to a slip, trip or fall. Runners, walkers & cyclists are all high-risk categories where drownings are concerned.

I've tried & failed many times to get water safety on the national curriculum.

The Government should review and enhance curriculum content on water safety, so schools are required to ensure that all children know about and know how to deal with issues such as cold water shock and rip currents.

It will soon be the 10-year anniversary of Dylan’s death. I never want you to feel the pain I do.


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Debate - Monday 12th July 2021

Water Safety

Monday 12th July 2021

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

Read Hansard Text
Department for Education

[David Mundell in the Chair]

David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their camera on for the duration of the debate, and that they will be visible at all times to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address, which is westminsterhallclerks@parliament.uk. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 576563, relating to water safety.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. The number of accidental water-related deaths in the UK every year is sobering: from 2009 to 2020, there were 7,000 water-related fatalities, and almost 3,000 families have been impacted by fatal accidents in water over the past 10 years. Just last year, 30 people under the age of 20 died from accidents in the water. Every single death is a tragedy. The lead petitioner, Rebecca Ramsay, lost her 13-year-old son Dylan 10 years ago this month. Like so many children and teenagers, Dylan had gone for what he thought would be an innocent swim with his friends on a summer’s day. He was an intelligent young man, a talented athlete and a strong swimmer, but tragically he lost his life when his body went into shock in response to the plummeting water temperature, causing him to drown. Losing your child is every parent’s worst nightmare, but sadly, Beckie’s family are far from the only ones to lose their son or daughter in this way.

I know that the Government’s written response to this petition came as an enormous disappointment to Beckie, and to other families that I met on Friday ahead of this debate. Ministers have pointed out that water safety is already on the curriculum, and it is true that since 1994, water safety and swimming have been mandatory as part of the primary curriculum in England and at key stage 3 where necessary. However, although it may be on the curriculum and some schools undoubtedly do a fantastic job of delivering it, the experts and expert groups I met before today’s debate, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Swim England, the Swimming Teachers Association, the Royal Life Saving Society and Mike Tipton, professor of human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth—many of whom deliver water safety lessons in schools themselves —all said exactly the same thing: in practice, it is just not happening in every school, and where it is, it is often delivered to a poor standard.

That is a real shame, because I think that water safety is something pupils are keen to learn about. One of the reasons I was keen to lead this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee is that the issue of water safety has been consistently raised with me when I have visited schools in Newcastle. So many times, I have asked primary school children, “What one thing would you like me to ask the Prime Minister to change?” expecting to hear answers such as, “More play parks” or “Ice creams on hot days”, but water safety comes up again and again. Perhaps because they have grown up close to the River Tyne, children are anxious to learn how to be safe in and around water. Although it is true that children generally are taught to swim at school, the idea that swimming is what safety in the water is all about is a dangerous misconception. That cannot be emphasised enough.

Many of the parents I spoke to ahead of this debate told me that their children were excellent swimmers, but, sadly, it was not enough to save them. Like Dylan, Fiona Gosling’s 14-year-old son Cameron was fit and healthy, loved sports and outdoor pursuits, and was a good swimmer, but cold water shock was something he had never learnt about. While out with friends near Bishop Auckland, he jumped into the River Wear. Tragically, when his body hit the water, it could not cope with the drop in temperature and his heart stopped beating. Jack Pullen, who lost his life in a river accident in Manchester in 2016 aged 16, was not a strong swimmer. He was with friends who were, but, sadly, they were unable to save him when he got into trouble in the water.

The water on the surface of the River Etherow had appeared calm on the surface, but it is believed that there might have been strong undercurrents and hidden hazards beneath the surface. Jack’s uncle, Chris, told me of his concern that there are so many dangers in the water that children are just not aware of. Something that Beckie Ramsay said about this really struck me. She said that by having school swimming lessons, perhaps giving children a curiosity about the water but neglecting the wider safety aspects, we could be teaching children just enough to get them killed.

Water safety is about having the knowledge to recognise what a rip is, why we should not go in, knowing there are parts of the beach where the tide might come in and trap us, and knowing what cold water shock is and what to do about it. It is about having a healthy wariness of the water and knowing how deceptively dangerous it can be outside the relative safety of a swimming pool. We only need to watch the Royal National Lifeboat Institution programme “Saving Lives” to see that most water accidents occur because people do not know those things. It is about lack of knowledge, not physical fitness or swimming ability. I am a big advocate of swimming. It has so many physical and mental health benefits, and it is a skill that saves lives, but on its own it is not enough. We need to ensure that water safety is also taught in every school.

I know headteachers are tired of politicians telling them to do more to address societal problems when resources are so tight. Since 2010, schools have had to stretch declining per pupil funding to meet more and more Government requirements around mental health, careers education and many functions that local authorities used to undertake, but can no longer afford. The Government have now increased funding, but analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out that the end result will be per pupil funding in 2022-23 that is no higher in real terms than it was in 2009-10. In effect, the Government will be giving schools the same amount of money that they had 11 years ago, while expecting them to do more with it. So I want to be clear that if we want schools to do more on water safety, as the petitioners advocate—it makes sense since almost all children go to school—schools should absolutely be given the extra resources that they need to do it.

In anticipation of the Minister’s response, I want to say that the petitioners know that the curriculum already includes requirements on swimming and self-rescue in a range of water-based situations. That is not the issue here. The problem is that that is not achieving the hoped for outcomes in terms of water safety knowledge and saving lives, and that is what we need the Government to do something about. I ask the Minister: is the Department for Education confident that the statutory requirements ensure that all children are taught water safety to a high standard in school? Are pupils really going into year 7 knowing what a rip current is and how to get in and out of it; that tides go in and out and can trap us; and what we should do to give ourselves the best chance of staying alive if we experience cold water shock? If not, will the Government now consider supplementing the curriculum with a requirement for children to receive class-based water safety instruction before they leave primary school?

Secondly, how are we checking on progress against the curriculum? The families and experts that I met repeatedly pointed out failings in the school accountability system and hoped to see an enhanced role for Ofsted. To take just the statutory requirements on swimming, according to a recent report from the all-party parliamentary group on swimming, in 2019-20 just 77% of year 7 pupils were able to fulfil the requirement of swimming 25 metres unaided.

It is a depressing but not surprising reality that the income-based inequalities in attainment that we see more broadly in the education system also affect this. Swim England forecasts that by 2024-25, just 35% of year 7s in the most deprived areas of England will meet the statutory requirement. Sadly, the emerging pattern is that local swimming facilities are now most under threat in those very same areas.

West Denton pool in my constituency sadly closed during the first national lockdown and will not reopen due to the financial impact of the pandemic. It was located in a neighbourhood that already suffered from significant heath inequalities, falling in the top 10% in the country, according to the 2009 indices of deprivation. I worry that not only will that compound the problem of children from less affluent backgrounds disproportionately failing to meet the statutory requirements, but that a lack of high-quality swimming facilities may lead to more children swimming in open water, which we know to be a much more dangerous environment.

Despite the statutory requirement in England, in response to a freedom of information request, Ofsted confirmed that after searching 25,000 inspection reports going back 13 years, it found that fewer than 10% mentioned anything to do with swimming. Where they did, it was usually only in a very general sense.

I know that Ofsted would say that it has to take a rounded view of schools and that it is not its role to check that each statutory requirement is being met, and I know the degree to which Ofsted and inspections genuinely drive school improvement is a hotly debated topic, but when so many children leave primary school unable to meet a key statutory requirement, and there are such grave concerns from families, campaigners and experts about what seems to be a more or less systemic failure on water safety, surely there is a role, if not for Ofsted, for the Department for Education, in looking at what more the school accountability system could be doing.

As 2021 looks like it will be a year of staycations, I worry that we will see more people swimming in open water on hot summer days, unaware of the dangers. The open waters of England are a far cry from a beach in Spain with a lifeguard. The parents of Michael Scaife, who died at age 20, after saving a friend who got into trouble in the water, have been part of a campaign to warn people that even on the hottest days, water can remain very cold, and people will still succumb to cold water shock very quickly. This is somewhat outside the Schools Minister’s remit, but I would be grateful if he let us know what the Government are doing to promote water safety, in particular to children, in this year of staycations.

Lastly, I know that the Minister will mention that the DFE has relaxed some of the rules around the use of PE and the sport premium, updating guidance to clarify that such funding can be spent on swimming and water safety. I am sure that that is welcomed, but water safety is not a sport; it is a survival skill, and it is not an optional extra. Accidental water deaths are a UK-wide problem. They are not confined to certain communities or parts of the country. This cannot be targeted at specific pupils or schools; it must be set at a standard that is deliverable across the country, with all pupils entitled to receive proper water safety instruction, just as they do with fire safety or road safety.

Accidental water deaths are a hidden pandemic that has been going on for years. Education is prevention, and that has been proven many times over. We have more children dying in the water than on bikes, yet we have campaigns for cycling proficiency; more than in fires, yet we have campaigns for smoke detectors. Road safety education programmes have reduced the rate of road fatalities by half in the United Kingdom, and a national campaign to teach fire prevention through schools led to significant decreases in deaths. In the same way, by getting water safety into schools and ensuring that it is delivered, we can break the cycle by giving every child that life-saving knowledge.

Before I finish, I want to mention the story of Evan Chrisp from Newcastle to demonstrate just what a difference a little knowledge can make. Three years ago, Evan and his friends went to Beadnell bay in Northumberland to celebrate finishing their exams. A rip current caught hold of Evan, and he was swept into the North sea. As he lost sight of the beach, he remembered what he had heard on a Royal National Lifeboat Institution advert:

“Everyone who falls unexpectedly into cold water wants to follow the same instinct—to swim hard and to fight the cold water. But, when people fight it, the chances are, they lose.

Cold water shock makes them gasp uncontrollably and breathe in water, then they drown. But if they just float, until the cold water shock has passed, they’ll be able to control their breathing and have a far better chance of staying alive.”

By following that advice, Evan was able to cling on to consciousness for around 45 minutes before he was rescued. He did not learn that at school—he remembered it from a one-minute advert that just happened to have played before a film he went to see at the cinema, but he credits it with saving his life.

Evan is getting on with his life and studying at university now, and I know how lucky he feels to have survived, but too many other families have lost their children and are having to learn to live without them. Beckie Ramsay told me of the deep sadness she has felt over the past 10 years watching Dylan’s friends grow up, knowing she will never see her own son get married or enjoy being a grandmother to his children. It is not the way life should be. Since Dylan’s death, Beckie has dedicated herself to campaigning for better water safety and has gone into schools up and down the country.

Other parents I have spoken to have done the same, but I also know how tired they are. Beckie has said that after 10 years of speaking to about 170,000 people in schools up and down the country, she feels we are no further forward. They want to save other families from going through what they have, but we cannot leave this at the doorstep of bereaved parents, who have enough to deal with as it is. Society must carry that responsibility, and the best way to deliver that is through schools. It does not need to be expensive or take up a huge amount of time. Professor Mike Tipton’s research has shown that something as simple as a 20-minute classroom-based lesson can make a significant difference and be retained by children, just as remembering that one-minute advert saved Evan’s life.

There is a huge amount of readily available expertise in the National Water Safety Forum that the Government could draw on. Its chair, Dawn Whittaker, contacted me on Friday to say that it would be keen to support the Department for Education with an enhancement to the curriculum, and produce a credible and robust classroom-based lesson plan and content to support schools to deliver mandatory water safety education. She said it could be delivered by the end of the year with the support of the Department. Will the Minister commit to taking the National Water Safety Forum up on that offer?

Ms Whittaker is also chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council campaign on water safety and told me she would be happy to support discussions on the inclusion of a requirement in the fire service national framework for the fire and rescue services to contribute to the delivery of water safety in schools. That could reduce the burden on teachers and schools, and I urge the Minister and his colleagues at the Home Office to consider it too.

Water accidents are highly preventable if we just get this teaching into schools and make sure it is being delivered. We already know what we need to teach and how to teach it; we just need to get on with it and make it happen. We owe that much to the memory of Dylan, Cameron, Jack, Michael and the countless others who have lost their lives in the water.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
- Hansard - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am pleased to be able to speak on such an important matter. I extend my gratitude to the Chair of the Petitions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), the other Committee members and all those who signed the petition, which allowed us to be here today debating this issue in Parliament.

This petition was created because of the heartbreaking loss of Dylan, who died from drowning 10 years ago. I want to put on the record my thanks for the tireless campaigning of Beckie Ramsay and all those who know all too well of the dangerous consequences of our waterways. I send them my deepest condolences for their huge losses.

There is hardly anything more painful in life than losing a child. Just over three years ago, I was contacted by a distraught father, Mark Scaife, about his late son. I asked a question of the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), at Prime Minister’s questions about the death of Michael Scaife, who sadly drowned in the Jubilee river in Slough. I urged the Government to do more on water safety education to ensure that children are taught about the potential dangers of open water and the impact of cold water shock and rip currents.

At that time, the then Prime Minister acknowledged that there is more to do on water safety, yet it seems that very little has changed since then. With other members of the former all-party parliamentary group on water safety and drowning prevention, I have made representations —as have the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, other organisations and headteachers of schools in Slough and across the country—for sufficient resources, but sadly to not much avail.

Drowning is still one of the highest causes of accidental deaths among children. More than 55% of parents admit that they would not be confident that their child would know what to do if they fell into open water. Even before the pandemic, almost one in four children could not swim the statutory 25 metres when they left primary school. While the national curriculum calls for pupils to be able to

“perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations”,

sadly awareness around water safety on waterways is clearly still not good enough. We must ensure that every child has knowledge of the vital swimming and water safety skills that might be needed to save their life or the life of somebody else, particularly considering that 44% of drowning fatalities happen when the victim had no intention of entering the water in the first place.

Throughout the pandemic, things have seemed to decline further, with much of the progress made on swimming lessons and education lost. Some 1.88 million children missed out on swimming participation throughout the 2020-21 academic year, with children living in deprived areas even worse off. Assuming that there are no catch-up lessons and nothing further is done, 1.2 million could leave primary school over the next five years unable to swim. This will result in worse outcomes for our children later in their lives and could even result in further tragedies. Despite this, the latest from the Government is that they have

“no plans to review current curriculum expectations for water safety”.

Their abysmal plan for education does not recognise the scale of the challenge. We must hear from the Minister concrete steps to ensure that our children do not fall further behind and that the disadvantage gap does not widen; and exactly how the Government will reduce the number of drownings.

I know we are all here to speak because we want to prevent further tragedies and devastation for families across the UK, and to speak out for those who have lost loved ones—for parents who have lost children in the most horrific circumstances, where in some cases these events could and should have been avoided. It is their resilience and strength that has brought us all here. I hope the Minister will listen to their concerns and take much overdue action to save lives.

Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling (Clacton) (Con)[V]
- Hansard - Excerpts

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful, as always, for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I support the principle behind the petition. The Government must review and, if necessary, enhance curriculum content on water safety. This is a change that the 109 people in my constituency who signed this petition want to see, and I know that there will be many more residents in our area who support improvements in water safety education.

Clacton is a wonderful place, happy to call itself the sunshine coast, which the vast majority of people enjoy in perfect safety, but due to some ignorance of the sea and its habits, we have had our fair share of tragedy. In 2018, local teenager, Ben Quartermaine, was swept out to sea while swimming with friends off Clacton pier. His body was found two days later. In 2020, another local man, Paul Lee, was found lying face down in the water off Clacton pier after going for a swim from the beach. These are two difficult and memorable incidents for the community, but unfortunately they are not isolated. Our hard-working lifeboat and coastguard teams at Clacton and Walton are regularly called out up and down the sunshine coast—something I have experience of as a former volunteer. I take this opportunity to thank all those involved in those hard-working teams across the country. They often work in the worst conditions imaginable and do it for nothing more than their time, although some do receive the reward of a well-earned beer, traditionally bought by the rescued for the lifeboat crews at Walton-on-the-Naze.

Given my experience in this area, and as a yachtsman as well, I am pleased that some of our local schools provide additional water safety lessons, especially after what happened to Ben and Paul. However, these are not universal across the country, and time and again visitors to our area get into difficulty. As an area so beautiful and so close to London, it is not surprising that we get our fair share of visitors, and as has been observed in the debate, we are likely to get many more staycationists. This disparity in the standard of water safety education in coastal and urban areas concerns me, and I believe it led to another tragedy in 2019, when two siblings from Luton died while swimming at Clacton after getting into difficulty.

I recognise the good work that is already being undertaken to educate all children about water safety, as set out in the Government’s response to the petition, but it is not enough. We are starting with a blank slate, and we must acknowledge that many people are able to enjoy the water safely because of the content in the curriculum and the work of organisations such as Swim England. Nevertheless, as has been said, there were still 254 deaths in UK waters from accidental drownings in 2020, an increase of 34 on the previous year, so I believe that there are too many avoidable deaths, which troubles me. It is the young who are most at risk of drowning, according to the World Health Organisation.

In short, our approach to water safety education has had some success, but it is not there yet and there is more that we can do to protect those most at risk, so I was disappointed to read that the Government had no plans to review current curriculum expectations. Surely we need to look at that again. Figures show that inland open water, such as rivers, canals, lakes, reservoirs and quarries, continue to be the leading locations, with 58% of deaths. How do we deal with that? Males continue to represent 78% of deaths. How do we better educate men and young boys about the dangers?

Almost half of those people had no intention of entering the water, with 107 either walking, slipping, tripping, falling, or being cut off by the tide or swept in by the waves. What educational resources can be put in place to stop those accidents? That is what a curriculum review should focus on. Doing so would ease the pressure on our hard-working and overstretched lifeboat crews and other emergency services and would prevent the terrible incidents that leave such a scar on our communities and the families affected. With that in mind, I ask the Government and the Minister to consider again implementing such review.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)
- Hansard - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the Chair of the Petitions Committee, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), for presenting the petition, and all those who signed it. We live in a country that is not only surrounded by sea but has many rivers, from the west coast up to the north coast and all down the east coast, many of which are extremely tidal. I swim in a nearby river, the Parrett, when it is going out to sea. When the tide turns, it is impossible to swim against it. The tide will take a swimmer away faster than they can swim. As long as they know what they are doing and can handle it, they can cope with that, and with the cold water, but what has been raised by so many today is the fact that it is the cold water, its strength and its direction of travel, that shock many people.

We have a very experienced Education Minister here this evening, who I am sure can find solutions, because it is about teaching our children to swim, and teaching them about the dangers of cold water. Lakes and other things have undercurrents. At the moment, the weather is not too brilliant, but when we have great weather lots of youngsters often jump in the water because it is something that they really enjoy. They might be egged on by others to do so, and many tragedies have happened.

I wanted to raise a case involving a constituent of mine, Andrea Corrie, who sadly lost her 19-year-old son James in 2005. James was a strong swimmer, who tragically lost his life in a drowning accident in the River Thames at Kingston after a night out with his friends. His family was told that cold water shock was most likely the reason he could not get out of the water. I highlight James’s story to emphasise how serious the issue is. On average, 400 people drown accidentally each year in the UK. That is one every 20 hours on average, and 44% of those who drown did not intend to enter the water. Drowning in the UK accounts for more accidental fatalities each year than fire deaths at home or cycling deaths on the road. I think many members of the public would not think that that statistic was right.

We need to do more to prevent drowning incidents around our shores and in inland waterways. Mrs Corrie has been a tireless campaigner on this issue, working alongside the RNLI on its Respect the Water campaign. Her determination to bring positive change out of her family’s tragedy is inspiring. We must raise awareness of the dangers of our waters, so that more families like Mrs Corrie’s do not suffer the same heartache.

This year, during what is likely to be a very busy post-lockdown summer around our coasts and inland waters, water-safety measures are more important than ever. We will be seeing a lot of people coming to the west country in particular this summer, and we welcome them, but it is safety that really matters. However, the issue does not stop with simply raising awareness of the dangers of cold water; education has a key part to play. The earlier children become aware of the dangers that lurk in inviting-looking pools of water, the better they will be equipped to help themselves if they get into trouble.

I think that there are three key things we can do, moving forward. First, we must raise awareness of the dangers of British waters through advertising campaigns such as the RNLI’s highly effective Respect the Water campaign. The adverts highlight the dangers and unpredictable risks of British coastal waters and the way in which waves, tides and hidden currents can drag people out to sea in seconds. We have only to remember the tragedy of the cockle pickers in order to understand the dangers in some waters. Where there is a very flat beach, the tide comes in incredibly quickly. Again, I do not think that people, unless they have actually experienced really strong tides, realise the speed at which that happens. These campaigns have already saved lives, and I think we need to look at other campaigns that can warn of the dangers of inland waterways.

Secondly, we must ensure that all schoolchildren are taught how to swim, and make sure that they catch up on lessons missed after the disruption of covid. The point was made by other speakers that in some deprived areas it is much more difficult to get access to swimming pools and access for those schools to take children to swim. Schoolchildren are required to learn to swim under the national curriculum, but only 77% of year 7 pupils could swim 25 metres unaided in 2020. A recent report by Swim England and the APPG on swimming forecast that that would drop to 43% by 2025 as a result of lessons being missed during the pandemic. It is vital that lessons are caught up on and that those rates are increased and not decreased. I am sure that we will hear from the Minister about how that can be done.

Learning to swim in a pool is the first important step, but we could also do more to ensure that schoolchildren know how to stay safe in open water. There is so much difference between swimming in a swimming pool and being in a fast-flowing river. The Swim Safe initiative is very good for teaching children about water safety in lakes and in the sea. This provides more practical and realistic training on staying safe in and around our waters.

Thirdly, we could look at how we reduce the risks posed by canals and rivers in towns. We need communities to carry out risk assessments and take steps to mitigate those risks. Local safety plans could save lives by preventing people from suffering slips, trips or falls near water. Let us be blunt: when pubs and other hospitality establishments are close to water, it would be quite nice for them to have—without putting everybody off coming to their establishment—something there to tell people just to be a little bit aware when they leave the establishment in order that they do not fall in the water. If it is very cold water and the person has been drinking, it will have an even greater effect on them. Without being a complete nanny state, we just have to point out to people that there are real risks, and I think it is up to some of these establishments—dare I say it?—to have some messaging there that can make people aware. We need to install more public rescue equipment along the waterways, too. We could also ensure that these communities raise awareness of the dangers of such things as drinking alcohol near these spots, which can be dangerous.

In summary, we have a very able Minister who has great experience,, and if he can combine a strong public awareness campaign and thorough practical education for schoolchildren with a more local approach to water risk, we can prevent many families from suffering in the way my constituent Mrs Corrie has suffered.

Peter Kyle Portrait Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab)
- Hansard - Excerpts

It is an unexpected pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, but a pleasure none the less. I pay tribute to the Chair of the Petitions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). The beauty of the Petition Committee is that it often brings to the House stories and issues that are sadly hidden under the headlines of the day. Yesterday, she chaired an evidence session with people who have been directly affected by this issue, and I think she did a fantastic job of conveying not only the breadth and depth of the policy challenges that we face, but the emotion and passion that the parents and families of affected people expressed to her yesterday. We all benefited from that.

Beneath the headlines are deeply personal issues that often result in loss, grief and tragedy. The debate covers one of those issues. The challenges that people face do not always fall into a neat policy box or splash on the front pages, but they matter. On issues such as the ones we are discussing, there are even questions of life and death. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Petitions Committee for giving voice to challenges on water safety.

I express my sincere condolences to Dylan Ramsay’s family, who set up the petition. Their courage has taken tragedy and channelled it into a positive campaign for change so that no others suffer as they have suffered. As the author of the petition writes:

“It will soon be the 10-year anniversary of Dylan’s death. I never want you to feel the pain I do.”

I am sure that all parties in the House would agree that no parent should have to experience that pain at all, yet all too often, they do.

According to the National Education Union, approximately half the people who drown each year are under the age of 15. Whether that is down to youth, inexperience or something else entirely, it means that mums, dads, brothers and sisters are grieving when they should be watching their family member grow and thrive. Those statistics speak for themselves, and they demand action.

There are two aspects to this challenge. First, how adequate is our school curriculum? Dylan’s family argue that the curriculum must properly prepare our children for the dangers of open water, and the Labour party agrees. If we do not teach kids how to keep themselves safe in water, from cold-water shock to rip currents, how can we expose them to so much risk when they explore the water alone? We expect drivers to learn theory to keep themselves and others safe on the roads. Given the clear risk posed by open waters, it is unclear why swimming should be any different.

I represent a constituency in the city of Brighton and Hove. It is a waterfront constituency like the Minister’s, which is, in fact, the constituency I grew up in and know well. I spent a lot of time in the water there as a child and young person. I experienced tragedy earlier this year when Gareth Jones, a volunteer for my local party and somebody I called a friend, lost his life to the sea in January. At 69, he was an older person, but his family was robbed of a very loving family member. It is very interesting that his son Robbie, a young person, said recently to the press:

“I grew up in Brighton from the age of eight, and I’ve never been taught about the dangers of the sea and different tides.”

Those are the dangers to which his father was lost, and of which he, as a son and young person, is now all too aware.

In the city of Brighton and Hove, which enjoys all sorts of sea activity—sometimes, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned, people go in after a drink or two—we are very aware of these issues. However, young people in particular who are growing up locally should be far more aware not just of the benefits of exercise at sea but of the challenges that come with it.

The Government point out in response to today’s petition that water safety is a mandatory part of the curriculum for physical education at primary school. However, if the proportion of young people dying at sea is so high, the current requirements cannot be working well enough. Perhaps, as the NEU suggests, teachers are not being properly supported to deliver the teaching in such a specialised and life-critical discipline; perhaps provision of high-quality water safety lessons is variable across the country; or perhaps the existing requirements simply do not go far enough. In any of these scenarios, the Government must be more open to reform than they have been to date. They cannot pretend that the problem no longer exists simply because of a basic curriculum requirement.

The second dimension is the problem that relates to swimming ability. The all-party parliamentary group on swimming points out that, even before covid, almost one in four children could not swim the statutory 25 metres when they left primary school. This situation has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, as 1.88 million children have missed out on swimming participation throughout the 2020-21 academic year, with classrooms and swimming centres being shut to limit the spread of the virus. The implications are shocking. The APPG suggests that, without additional top-up lessons, up to 1.2 million children will leave primary school over the next five years entirely unable to swim.

If young people are not confident with the theory of water safety and over a million of them are not even able to swim, we are risking far more of the terrible incidents that we continue to see year upon year. I am sure that the ambition to tackle this problem is shared across the House, but I have to ask the Minister for more action. The Government’s educational catch-up proposals featured nothing on extracurricular activities or wellbeing. Labour is committed to this issue. Our own children’s recovery plan promised to invest in activities for sport, music, drama and book clubs, helping every child to recover on learning, social play and wellbeing. Our plan would ensure that schools have the time and resources to offer proper water safety lessons, pending a review of curriculum adequacy. What is more, it would give kids more time back in the pool, including after school. Labour wants our kids to learn and grow in the water under proper supervision, so that that figure of 1.2 million can be tackled properly.

The authors of this petition have identified a clear problem, and Members from across the House and the APPG on swimming have suggested solutions. Now it is time for the Government to listen and to act, because the safety of our kids at sea cannot wait any longer.

Nick Gibb Portrait The Minister for School Standards (Nick Gibb)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, which is a first for me, at least.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), the Chair of the Petitions Committee, for bringing forward this debate on increasing curriculum content about water safety as part of swimming lessons, and to Rebecca Ramsay, who created the petition.

Please let me start by expressing my sincere condolences to the family and friends of Dylan Ramsay. Even 10 years later, the pain for the family will be as strong today as it was 10 years ago. I welcome the commitment and determination of Rebecca, Dylan’s mother, to help to raise awareness of water safety, particularly through the work of the Do it for Dylan water safety campaign; and I have listened carefully to the powerful speeches from the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North and for Slough (Mr Dhesi), and from my hon. Friends the Members for Clacton (Giles Watling) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish).

The recent annual data on water-related fatalities published by the Water Incident Database showed that we must do all we can to eliminate the tragedy of children and young people drowning. In 2020, of the 176 people in England who drowned as a result of an accident or natural causes, 20 were 19 years old or younger. Water safety is a vital skill, which is why it is a mandatory part of the curriculum for physical education at primary school. The curriculum states that, in addition to being able to swim 25 metres unaided and use a range of strokes effectively, pupils should be taught to perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations.

Data from the 2019-20 Active Lives children’s survey states that 77% of children surveyed in year 7 report that they are able to swim 25 metres unaided, the same as the previous year. The data recognises that schools and teachers need additional support to teach about water safety in a way that is relevant to real-life circumstances. That is why the Department has worked closely with the swimming and water safety sector to take forward a number of actions. The PE and sport premium can be used by primary schools to support swimming through teacher training and top-up lessons for pupils not able to meet the curriculum expectations by the end of core lessons.

Some 45% of teachers reported that they had used their premium funding to improve the teaching of swimming since 2017, according to a 2019 DFE report on schools’ use of the premium funding, and the Department has worked with Swim England to produce additional guidance for schools on how they can use their premium funding to support pupils to swim and to be taught how to be safe in and around water. Funding for the PE and sport premium has recently been confirmed for academic year 2021-22 at £320 million.

Swim England has published a series of guidance documents on school swimming and water safety for schools, parents and swimming teachers. These include a specific guidance document on teaching water safety at key stages 1 and 2. This guidance document provides schools with a clear approach to ensure that pupils receive comprehensive water safety education, covering aspects such as the water safety code, cold water shock, keeping others safe, and how to recognise hazards in different environments.

Schools play an important role in ensuring that all pupils know how to be safe in and around water, providing opportunities for children who may otherwise miss out on swimming activities outside of school. This is more important than ever, as children’s access to swimming and water safety lessons has been limited through covid-19 restrictions. Again, the Active Lives survey data reports that swimming proficiency differs depending on affluence, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North pointed out, with 84% of children from the most affluent families being able to swim 25 metres unaided, compared with 41% of those from the least affluent families.

That survey also reports that 23% of children surveyed took part in swimming activities at least once in the past week, a 6.2% decrease compared with data from 2018-19. That is why new online water safety lessons have been made available through Oak National Academy in response to the covid crisis, and those lessons align with Swim England’s water safety guidance for primary schools. I am grateful for the support provided by organisations such as the Royal Life Saving Society UK, Swim England and the Youth Sport Trust in the development of these new online lessons. They have shared resources, quality-assured the content, and ensured that lessons are inclusive.

It is important that all pupils have opportunities to be taught to swim and about water safety. That is why the Department has included a specific focus on swimming and water safety in our grant programme to increase opportunities for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities to take part in PE and sport. The most recent programme, Inclusion 2020, was completed in March 2021. That programme has resulted in new resources, self-assessment tools being developed, and continuing professional development lessons for teachers.

Those new resources are available to schools through a new inclusion hub on Swim England’s website, providing high-quality, inclusive resources. The Department has recently completed an open competition for a new grant focused on increasing PE and sport opportunities for children with SEND. This consortium programme will be led by the Youth Sport Trust, and will involve Swim England and include the development of additional inclusive school swimming and water safety resources and training that schools will be able to access.

The Department is working to better understand specific challenges and barriers for children from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. For example, data from the 2019-20 Active Lives children’s survey shows differences in swimming participation among different ethnic groups. The Department is working with the Black Swimming Association to better understand the barriers to increased participation and to raise awareness of water safety.

Supporting schools to make the best use of their facilities is key to ensuring that pupils have access to high-quality lessons and extracurricular opportunities. In February, the Department announced an additional £10.1 million to improve the use of school sports facilities. That funding can be used to support schools to open swimming pools outside the school day and to fund the additional cleaning, signage and sanitation that they may require in order to be coded secure.

The funding was provided to all 42 active partnerships across England. More than half indicated in their delivery plans that they will work directly with schools to support the effective use of pool facilities. That includes Active Dorset, which focuses on children in year 7 who are unable to swim 25 metres, having missed out on swimming and water safety lessons in year 6 due to covid restrictions. The aim is to provide free pool access on school sites between 3 o’clock and 4.30 pm for pupils in that group.

I welcome the swimming and water safety sector’s ongoing work to raise awareness of water safety, and the range of resources and programmes that it delivers to children and young people. This year, the Department continued its support for the Royal Life Saving Society UK’s Drowning Prevention Week in June, and I am pleased with early reports that the school-focused element of the campaign was delivered to more than 680,000 children.

The Department will continue to support schools to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn to swim and to be taught water safety, in particular recognising the new challenges brought about by covid restrictions. I will be delighted, of course, to meet the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, other hon. Members and outside organisations that want to help provide more resources for schools—in particular, for example, in the new relationships, sex and health education curriculum, which has an important first aid element in it—and enhance the resources for the delivery of the PE national curriculum. Finally, I pay tribute once again to Rebecca Ramsay for her important work in raising the profile of swimming and water safety, as she has.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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I thank the Minister for that response and hon. Members for their contributions this evening.

I want to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), because I met Michael’s father, Mark, on Friday, alongside the other parents who have lost their children in water accidents. It was an incredibly moving meeting, and I know that the fact that he has his MP’s support will mean a lot to Mark, as will the speech that my hon. Friend made.

The hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) also spoke incredibly powerfully about experiences in his community, and made the case for reviewing the curriculum. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) spoke from personal knowledge and experience of the issue, supported the petitioners’ call for teaching the dangers of cold and tidal waters, and shared the tragic experience of his constituent, Mrs Corrie, with the loss of her son, James. Once again, James was a strong swimmer —we hear that over and over again.

I reiterate to the Minister what I said in my opening comments: we know that this is on the curriculum. The problem is that it is just not happening in a consistent way. In many cases, it is not happening at all. That is not my view; it is what five water safety experts from five different organisations and the bereaved parents I spoke to, many of whom have spent years campaigning and speaking in schools, all say. They all reported the same experience. They desperately want the Government to do something about it.

I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to consider supplementing the curriculum with a requirement for children to receive class-based water safety instruction before they leave primary school, with accountability for ensuring that it happens. The National Water Safety Forum has a huge well of expertise to draw on. As I said, its chair has indicated that it is ready and willing to support the Department for Education in drawing up a plan to get that into the classroom as quickly as possible. I am grateful for the Minister’s offer to meet the campaigning groups to see how we can make that happen.

Unlike many other major public health issues, there has been no comparable campaign on drowning prevention, but on 28 April this year the UN adopted its first ever resolution on global drowning prevention. It requests all member states to develop a national drowning prevention plan and measurable targets, put in place effective water safety laws, promote the research and development of innovative drowning prevention tools and technology, and make water safety, swimming and first aid part of the school curriculum. The resolution also introduces a new UN World Drowning Prevention Day, on 25 July each year.

I hope Members will do what they can to join the initiatives on this year’s World Drowning Prevention Day by groups such as the International Drowning Research Alliance, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and many others who work tirelessly to try to eradicate a problem that tragically claims so many lives, but is largely preventable with the help of low cost interventions.

In a letter to the DFE that she was kind enough to share with me, Beckie Ramsay said: “In the past decade I have sadly met with many families who have different stories, but all with the same outcome. One thing that comes across over and over again is that parents only learn about cold water shock when either trying to work out the cause of their loved one’s death or at their loved one’s inquest. Isn’t it time to break that cycle? When it comes to safety, knowledge is power, and education saves lives, but what we are missing is any universal availability of this life-saving knowledge.”

On behalf of the petitioners, I urge the Government to support their campaign to get water safety into schools and ensure it is delivered properly. We did it for road and fire with life-saving results. Now let us do it for water.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 576563, relating to water safety.

Sitting adjourned.

Government Response

Thursday 3rd June 2021

The Department expresses its sincere condolences to the family of Dylan Ramsay and is working closely with water safety organisations to support schools to teach water safety effectively.


The Department expresses its sincere condolences to the family and friends of Dylan Ramsay. Too many people lose their lives to drowning incidents each year and the Department recognises the role that water safety education plays in helping prevent accidents.

Water safety is a vital life skill, which is why it is a mandatory part of the curriculum for Physical Education at primary school. The curriculum states that pupils should be taught to perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations. The Department recognises that children have missed out on opportunities to be taught how to swim and to be safe in and around water due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Department is continuing to work closely with Swim England, The Royal Life Saving Society UK, Canal and River Trust and the Association for Physical Education to support pupils being taught how to swim and to be taught water safety through a number of routes.

Swim England has produced guidance documents on school swimming and water safety. This includes a specific guidance document on teaching water safety at Key Stages 1 and 2 and covers aspects such as the water safety code, recognising hazards and cold water shock.

The PE and sport premium can be used by primary schools to support swimming and water safety, for example through ‘top-up’ lessons or additional teacher training. In addition, schools are able to access new virtual water safety lessons from Oak National Academy and the Department will be supporting the Royal Life Saving Society UK’s Drowning Prevention Week in June 2021. The Department has provided an additional £10.1m to improve use of school sport facilities, including swimming pools. New resources to support children with SEND to be taught how to swim and knowing how to be safe in and around the water have been developed through the Department’s Inclusion 2020 grant, which is led by the Youth Sport Trust. These resources are available on Swim England’s inclusion hub. At this time, Government has no plans to review current curriculum expectations for water safety.

Department for Education


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