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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:18 pm on 19 May 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 2:18, 19 May 2023

My Lords, I am not sure whether it is a declaration of interest, but I am an open-water swimmer who swims every morning in the Serpentine, so I am familiar with many of these concepts, including swimming in very cold water. The noble Baronesses opposite look doubtful, but I recommend it to the House.

I offer my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on securing a Second Reading for the Bill and for the very sensitive way in which he introduced it. I agree with the noble Baroness opposite that this is a very important issue. My right honourable friend the Minister for School Standards will be meeting the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Water Safety to discuss this further.

While I must express reservations about the contents of the Bill, the Government support the teaching of both swimming and water safety to all children during their time at school, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, rightly highlighted.

The recent terrible deaths of young children who drowned emphasise the importance of teaching children about water safety from a young age. The national curriculum for physical education states that, by the time they leave primary school, children should be able to perform safe self-rescue in a variety of water-based environments, swim a minimum of 25 metres unaided and perform a range of strokes.

A key theme of many of your Lordships’ speeches was the need to address gaps in delivery and in the data to give us all confidence that our schools are delivering on the national curriculum in this area. A 2022 departmental survey reported that 80% of primary schools surveyed were providing pupils with swimming and/or water safety lessons, with no variation seen among different types of primary schools.

My noble friend Lady Berridge and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, both questioned whether academies might be delivering at a different level from local authority-maintained schools, but there is no evidence to support that suggestion. The most common reason given by primary schools not currently delivering swimming or water safety lessons was that they were scheduled for later in the academic year; so, while I absolutely acknowledge and welcome the probing from your Lordships, we do not see this as a serious issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, and other noble Lords asked for more clarity on how we would improve the quality of data in this area. I am always sympathetic to the aim of improving our data. We are introducing a new digital tool, to which my noble friend Lady Berridge referred, to support schools with their reporting requirement. We will publish further information on that tool when refreshed guidance on the PE and sport premium is published this summer.

In relation to the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, about whether this should be regarded as a safeguarding issue—with her permission, I think we need to go away and reflect on that; it could have big implications for other things with safeguarding aspects that are not conventionally seen as safeguarding issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked what resources were being made available in relation to water safety. With support from the department, the National Water Safety Forum has launched new water safety resources for pupils in key stages 1 to 3, which teach children how to be safe in and around water, including frozen water. These were launched in June 2022 during National Drowning Prevention Week. The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, asked whether the Government would support continued work in this area. I assure her that we are in discussion with the National Water Safety Forum as part of its Respect the Water campaign, and we will be working with the forum in drowning prevention week again this year.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, and other noble Lords highlighted the fact that pupils from lower socioeconomic groups are less likely to be able to swim. The Government share the noble Lord’s concern about this. That is why we are working with Swim England and the Royal Life Saving Society UK to support more children to learn how to swim and how to be safe in and around water; this will also happen through the DfE-funded holiday activities and food programme this summer.

In relation to children from black and minority-ethnic groups, Inspire 2022, which is one of the legacy projects from the Commonwealth Games in the West Midlands, is seeking to increase participation in black and minority-ethnic communities. That is funded through Sport England and brings together Swim England, the Association for PE, a number of local partnerships and the Black Swimming Association.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, mentioned the differential in gender as to which children were able to swim or not. She might have meant it also in relation to the intersection of ethnicity and gender. I do not have the data on that with me; if it is available, I will happily write to her. The data overall does not show a great difference between boys and girls. Boys are slightly more likely to be able to swim between the ages of one and 11, but there is no material difference.

Secondary schools are free to organise and deliver a diverse and challenging PE curriculum to suit the needs of their pupils. As the House has acknowledged, there is no statutory requirement on secondary schools to provide swimming lessons, but the secondary PE curriculum sets out that pupils should build on and embed the physical development and skills that they learned in key stages 1 and 2 and become more competent and expert in their technique. Obviously, swimming and water safety lessons are one way of doing that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, asked particularly about swimming lessons outside school and the role of leisure centres and community pools. Of course, they provide really important opportunities for children to learn to swim. Some 20.7% of all children participated in swimming activities outside of school once a week or more in 2021-22—that is about 1.5 million children. Obviously, the Covid pandemic had a huge impact on community leisure centres, including public swimming pools, and that is why in the Spring Budget we announced more than £60 billion to safeguard public swimming pools in England as a first step to future-proof the sector, which I think was something that my noble friend Lady Sater also asked about.

The other aspect on water safety is through the PSHE curriculum. Schools can use their personal, social, health and economics programme to equip pupils with a sound understanding of risk and with the knowledge necessary to make safe and informed choices, which is of course an important part of water safety.

I want also to touch briefly on our partnership work with the sector. As I have already mentioned, we are working in partnership with members of the National Water Safety Forum, in particular the Royal Life Saving Society UK and Swim England. We were very pleased to accept an invitation from the National Water Safety Forum to sit on its education subgroup. That will help the department to improve the dissemination of resources and messages to schools. Together, we are supporting more schools to teach primary and secondary pupils important aspects of water safety such as, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Addington, cold water shock, rip currents and keeping safe near frozen water. We have also supported the National Water Safety Forum to make available new, free water safety resources, which I mentioned earlier, for pupils in key stages 1 to 3.

Just before I close, I hope with permission of the House that I can very briefly acknowledge and thank one of the officials in the Department for Education, Peter Whitelaw. I am not sure if you can be a rock in the Box, but he has been, and is today, a rock to all Ministers in the department; I know that my noble friend Lady Berridge will agree with me. He goes to the Ministry of Justice, and we wish him every success and thank him for his five years of support to Ministers.

In closing, I hope I have set out the three ways His Majesty’s Government are taking action on water safety. The first, of course, relates to the requirements to teach swimming in primary schools. The second is our support for leisure centres and community provision of swimming. The final one is the crucial partnerships that we have, in particular through the National Water Safety Forum. For these reasons, I believe that there is no need to amend the current legislation in regard to the national curriculum providing pupils with additional knowledge regarding water safety and prevention of drowning, but we very much share the House’s sentiment about the importance of this issue .