My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for bringing forward this important issue for consideration, and for doing so in such a sensitive manner. While swimming is important as a form of exercise, unlike other forms of PE it is literally life-saving. Perhaps I am not the only noble Lord who remembers carrying around a soggy pair of pyjamas for the rest of the school day; they were used to ensure that you could tread water in your clothes for long enough for the fire brigade to come and rescue you. In the 1980s, swimming lessons were about population maintenance rather than technique.
It is welcome that, by
When Sport England collected data from schools in England for its Active Lives study, which the noble Lord mentioned, it showed that only 76% of year 7 children can swim 25 metres unaided. While the importance of the freedom of academies and free schools has long been debated, it has never been absolute. The handling of public money has always been monitored and, arguably, academies have more accounting requirements than maintained schools. But in terms of curriculum, the academies have never had freedom on how to teach a child to read, for instance. The phonics screening test has meant that academy primary schools have used that method. On that note, it is good news that children in England are now the best at reading in the western world, having risen from eighth to fourth place in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.
I will return to matters in hand. Academies have other duties, such as safeguarding, so I really do not think that making swimming compulsory at both primary and secondary levels, as the Bill proposes, is an unreasonable restriction on their freedoms. But perhaps the most important reason why it needs to be made compulsory, to which the noble Lord alluded, is the racial disparities as to whether people in England can swim. In October 2020, Danielle Obe, the then interim chief executive of the Black Swimming Association, said:
“The launch of the Black Swimming Association was seen as a beacon of hope to drive more inclusion, participation, diversity and safety for BAME communities in aquatics, set against the startling statistics that 95 per cent of black adults and 80 per cent of black children in England do not swim”.
Two years later, in October 2022, Swim England conducted a survey with 4,500 completed questionnaires, using online and face-to-face means to collect data. While 14% of adults in white communities cannot swim 25 metres unaided, that rises to 49% of ethnically diverse communities. Also, according to the Royal Life Saving Society, nearly 34% of Asian children cannot self-rescue.
There are many reasons for this disparity. If parents cannot swim, they are less likely to teach their children to do so. Then there is the cost of swimming, which can give the perception that it is a middle-class pursuit, as well as the time that it takes to get to the swimming baths; if you are working a number of part-time jobs, it is just impossible. Then there is the lack of culturally appropriate swimwear. New fashion designers are stepping into this gap and designing swim caps suitable for chemically relaxed hair, braids and natural black hair. It is wonderful that a swim cap has finally been approved for use in highest level of competitions for natural black hair, and inspirational that Alice Dearing became the first black female swimmer to be selected to represent Great Britain, at the Tokyo Olympics. His Majesty’s Government have lauded their collection of this kind of data on racial disparity—but surely the figures I have cited mean that action is needed. The Bill would be one small way to rectify this injustice.