Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab) [V]
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.