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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:09 pm on 19 May 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Twycross Baroness Twycross Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 2:09, 19 May 2023

My Lords, I declare an interest as London’s Deputy Mayor for Fire, as the issue of water safety—and water rescue—is part of the work of all fire and rescue services, including the London Fire Brigade. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his efforts and campaigning on water safety and also commend the work of the Royal Life Saving Society.

The noble Lord raises vital points about the potential tragic consequences of children and young people not having the knowledge and skills that will keep them safe in and around water. It is absolutely right that we should ensure that children have the skills and understanding they require to stay safe. He also highlighted in his speech that behind the shocking statistics on death by drowning lie tragic individual stories of loss that could have been avoided. With over 400 people drowning accidently in the UK and Ireland every year, and many more suffering life-changing injuries, there is clearly an argument for looking at what more can be done to promote safety. As my noble friend Lady Morris said, everyone agrees that we need more water safety; we need everyone to keep safe in and around water.

This is a timely debate. As we come towards the summer with the weather—hopefully, at some point—improving, more young people will be tempted to take risks with outdoor swimming. A key risk that people need to be aware of is cold water shock, which can happen when people jump into cold water on hot days, and the danger that it poses. Tragically, it sometimes takes publicity about a death to trigger awareness of these risks in the media. Last summer, we saw some tragic incidents, and many local areas made extensive efforts to raise awareness during the extreme heat incident, including fire and rescue services, councils and voluntary sector organisations working in this area.

I would be grateful for a commitment from the Minister that the Government will include promoting national and local awareness of the risks of outdoor swimming and of being in and around water in their planning for safety over the summer. I am sure that she would agree that partnership working through different agencies, such as the drowning prevention strategy led by the Tidal Thames Water Safety Forum, can also play a vital role, not least in prevention of suicide by drowning—I apologise for moving away from the main subject for a moment—which is one of the key causes of death by drowning in adults. What more will the Government do to help facilitate partnership working of this nature to promote water safety knowledge for people of all ages?

This is not to underestimate the role of schools, which the Bill is clearly focused on. As Deputy Mayor for Fire, I had the privilege of meeting a young boy who had used the RNLI advice to “float like a large starfish” and had avoided drowning as a result until he was rescued. He had learned this through his school doing what schools are already required to do. My personal memory of what my school taught me reflects what has been said already by noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, about soggy pyjamas. I was in fact unaware of the current advice, which is perhaps a lesson in needing to make sure that adults as well as children are taught basic information around water safety. Organisations such as Swim England work with the RNLI and other local delivery partners and provide valuable support and resources to schools. It is clear from Swim England’s research that active learning works best. A remarkable 99% of children undertaking lessons through its Swim Safe programme since 2013 retain the message through to the following year.

It is already the case, and it is right, that all schools must provide swimming instruction in either key stage 1 or key stage 2. I cannot see why this swimming instruction would not or should not include wider, accurate information around water safety. The Government have said that they want to improve the number of children leaving primary school having achieved the goals of the current curriculum: to perform safe self-rescue; to swim at least 25 metres; and to be able to do a number of types of strokes. This is also right.

My noble friend Lady Morris was right that successive Governments have attempted to improve outcomes in this area. However, with the number of pools in the UK already falling—as has been noted by previous speakers—and expected to decrease by 40% over the next eight years, does the Minister have confidence that this will be feasible? Are the Government monitoring and addressing the closure of public—or publicly available—swimming pools? What practical measures do they intend to take to prevent further closure of swimming pools and increase access by schools to swimming pools, so that schools do not have to travel too far to provide access to this vital life skill to children?

As a number of speakers today have said, I also highlight that, despite the intention in relation to outcomes that are already in existing legislation, children from less affluent backgrounds are half as likely as their peers to be able to swim 25 metres. This is scandalous and the issue has been highlighted by both Swim England and the Royal Life Saving Society. As has also been noted, this divide exists in relation to ethnicity as well. While 80% of white British children aged seven to eight can swim a 25-metre length, the figure falls to around 50% for black children and to less than 60% for ethnically Asian children. There are similar inequalities for self-rescue. How are the Government addressing the specific barriers that lower-affluence and ethnic minority children face staying safe in water?

Swim England has also highlighted issues with the data available for schools. This has been noted by other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Morris and the noble Baroness, Lady Sater. Swim England gives the example that over half of schools in the Black Country do not publish the data required on swimming and water safety performance. Put simply, I cannot see how the Department for Education can adequately monitor or enforce the requirement to publish this information. As it is simply not being adequately monitored or enforced, the department cannot know if schools are meeting their existing requirements on swimming and water safety. Can the Minister commit to doing everything in her and the Government’s power to ensure that this data gap is addressed? Does she accept my noble friend Lady Morris’s point that this should be addressed as a safeguarding issue, with the accompanying pass/fail measure that that would include?

I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, that being able to swim is, by itself, not always sufficient knowledge to ensure water safety. While I am sympathetic to the aims of Private Members’ Bills, Bills intended to add things to the national curriculum always pose a question of what will be taken out to make room for the new subject matter, so I would be interested in the noble Lord’s thoughts on whether the existing legislation and national curriculum requirements would meet his aims if the department enforced them effectively. I would also welcome the clarity requested by my noble friend Lady Morris on whether the Minister thinks that the existing curriculum could or would meet these aims, if it was carried out effectively.

It is clear from this debate and comments that the House is of one view: water safety is an absolute priority. I look forward to the Minister’s response on the questions raised in the debate and I will follow the progress of the Bill, led by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, with interest.