Water Safety (Curriculum) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:54 pm on 19 May 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Morris of Yardley Baroness Morris of Yardley Chair, Public Services Committee, Chair, Public Services Committee 1:54, 19 May 2023

My Lords, I am very pleased to support the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Storey. I congratulate him not only on bringing the Bill forward but on his long history of work in this field. This comes as yet another attempt to improve our performance in this area, and it is very welcome.

I also agree with everything the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, said; I will emphasise some of the points she raised. This is one of the issues that, strangely, we all agree on; I suspect that no one will say that children do not need to swim or to know about water safety. We all want to do better, and we all know that we are not doing as well as we can. Those of us in the Chamber today very often find ourselves in other education debates where there is a difference of opinion on pedagogy, philosophy or perception, but that does not exist here; we are all on the same side. Given that, you would think that we would solve the problem collectively. It is one of those strange cases where, although we are all on the same side, and Governments of all persuasions, I think, have tried to do things, there is still a problem.

I pay tribute to what the Government have done, having looked at the action they have taken in recent years. They have made a good attempt to solve the problem, but it is no good rehearsing that if, as the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, said, the figures show that one in four children cannot swim when they leave key stage 1 in primary school—and that figure is worse for children from some ethnic groups. When looked at the data, I could not see the figures on gender as well as ethnicity, but I suspect that, within some ethnic groups, the gender difference is even greater.

It is also one of those things that, I suspect, we are not better at than when I was a child—I have no evidence for that but the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, referred to it. I too remember the pyjamas and trying to inflate them to save your life in difficult circumstances. My memory—this is instinctive—is that, when I was a child at a council estate primary school, we went to the swimming baths. We went once a week—it took half a day—and most of us could swim. We did not go for one term only but went throughout our time at primary school. It is hard to understand why we have not made progress in this area, when we have progress in every other educational area, and even though we all agree on it. It is a mystery. I hope that the Minister will be able to make some comments, not so much on what we have done—that is great—but on the reality that we have not done enough. It is a matter of life and death.

Although we have the national curriculum and the PE and sport premium, what is true and evidenced is that some schools are not following the national curriculum but there are no consequences. Some schools are not publishing the statistics on whether they are supporting swimming through the PE and sport premium fund, but there are no consequences. I always like to look at the subjects or aspects of our work that we prioritise and then shift the argument. If that were true of teaching children to learn to read and write—or of their development in not being able to walk, talk or socialise—we would do something about it. People across the board, over 20 years, have thought they have done enough but the statistics show that that is not the case. Why is what we have done not good enough, and what else can be done?

Although I am not putting this forward as a serious suggestion, it is worth thinking about whether this is a child safety issue rather than a curriculum issue. If we think of it in that light, as a safeguarding issue—because it saves lives—and if we compare what we do with schools on safeguarding issues with what we are doing with swimming, we will see that there is a huge disparity. As the Minister will know, if a school does not have its paperwork in order on safeguarding or does not have a safeguarding register of sixth-form students off site at lunchtime, it would fail its Ofsted inspection. However, we do not even know whether a school teaches the part of the national curriculum on swimming, or whether any of its PE and sport premium finance is going towards swimming. If we started looking at it as a child safeguarding issue because it saves lives, I wonder whether we might find some different answers and make progress.

I am grateful to Swim England for its briefing, which I found very helpful. What it really impressed upon me, which I had not given much thought to, is that this is about both swimming ability and water safety knowledge. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, spoke about people who can swim and still drown. So, understanding the tides and knowing what to do in different situations in water is very important.

When I look at the national curriculum and the three things that children have to be able to do, I am not sure that they cover water safety knowledge. Two definitely do not, and the only one that could possibly cover it is:

“Perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations”.

But that is more about swimming than not going into the water because you understand about tides. Does the Minister accept that this is about both swimming ability and water safety knowledge? Could she give us her view as to whether she considers water safety knowledge to be included in the national curriculum?

I have a few more points that I would be grateful for answers to. It does not make sense not to collect the data. It is no good knowing that one in four children leaves primary school not being able to swim if we do not know who they are and which schools they attend. That is what we do in other areas; we know which schools are underperforming in reading and numeracy. If I was to ask the Department for Education whether it could tell me, of the schools in Birmingham—where I did some education work—which ones are not performing well at swimming, and what the backgrounds of the children who cannot swim are, I am not convinced that it could offer an answer. Collecting that data would mean that the interventions we then make can actually be targeted.

As a necessary first step, that just makes sense. If a child cannot read and write by the end of key stage 2, we would not say, “That’s fine; you don’t have to do any learning about it in key stages 3 and 4”. We would say, “You’re going to have to continue with this, because it’s a very important skill that you’ve not yet mastered”. In that way, the Bill is very necessary and can provide a structure for the next stage of the work.