As preventable summer drownings hit a six-year high, Labour are calling for greater swimming education at schools to keep young New Zealanders safe in our waterways.

Thirty-one people have died since December 1 in summer drownings deemed preventable. The last time numbers were this high was in 2011, when 35 people died over the same period.

Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins doesn't want any family to experience the tragedy of their child drowning.

To prevent this he wanted to ensure every child has the opportunity to learn to swim at school. But tight budgets meant school pools are closing and some schools can't afford to provide regular swimming lessons, he said.

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"Every drowning is a tragedy and anything we can do to prevent this through better swimming lessons for kids has got to be a good thing.

"It's about living a full life and living the Kiwi dream and making sure our kids are going to be safe and avoid tragedy in the future.

"It shouldn't matter where in the country you are, if some kids get free swimming lessons, all kids should be getting them."

Hipkins believed one of the solutions to stopping the number of young Kiwis drowning lay with the Government.

They needed to "front up" with extra funding to maintain school pools and get kids who attended a school without a pool to have more regular swimming lessons, he said.

Labour Party MP Chris Hipkins would like to see free equal access to swimming lessons for all Kiwi kids. PHOTO/Mark Mitchell
Labour Party MP Chris Hipkins would like to see free equal access to swimming lessons for all Kiwi kids. PHOTO/Mark Mitchell

"Government funding is just not keeping up with the costs of educating kids. As a result schools have to cut costs," he said.

ROTORUA DAILY POST
18 Feb, 2017 9:00am
4 minutes to read

"Until funding catches up things like swimming lessons continue to be pushed to the side."

Education Minister Hekia Parata disagreed that schools did not get enough funding to keep up with the costs of educating students.

"Since 2008 student numbers have increased by 3.6 per cent and the cumulative increase in CPI inflation was 13.5 per cent, while the increase for schools' operations grants over the same period was over 35 per cent."

She recommended that schools who did not have a pool use their operations grant to take students to a nearby swimming pool.

"Our Government is concerned to ensure that we get the best outcomes for taxpayers and ratepayers by making good use of quality civic amenities such as community swimming pools."

Water Safety NZ chief executive Jonty Mills believed adequate swimming lessons would prevent drownings in the long term.

Currently only a quarter of schools are getting an acceptable level of water safety education, which he said amounted to eight lessons or more.

"Schools are expected to provide a form of aquatic education. But it's not specific, it's not mandatory.

"A lot of people get into trouble in the water and sadly drown. Many of them don't have those foundational water safety skills."

Adequate swimming lessons will prevent future drownings, Water Safety NZ said. PHOTO/Greg Bowker
Adequate swimming lessons will prevent future drownings, Water Safety NZ said. PHOTO/Greg Bowker

Drownings of children under 15 are generally low due to them being well supervised. But when they hit the 15- to 18-year-old age bracket it triples, Mills said.

Drownings of youth aged 0 to 18 have accounted for between 10 and 16 deaths each year for the last five years. Last year 11 youth died.

Beyond the 0 to 4 age group, drowning starts to become a gender problem, 85 per cent of preventable drownings are males.

Mills confirmed there were schools that do not provide swimming lessons, such as rural schools who have had to close their pool. He said 156 school pools have closed in the last five years and 135 are at risk of closing.

Ministry of Education spokeswoman Kim Shannon said about 1300 schools or 60 per cent of schools had pools. Those that did not have a pool could either use another school's facility or a community baths.

All schools with pools receive additional funding to maintain the facility. Schools that don't have a pool can use their operations grant to help take students to a nearby swimming facility.

"Swimming is part of the curriculum so every child gets the opportunity to learn fundamental water skills either at their own school pool or at a local community pool."

Numbers have hovered between 90 and 113 drownings per year for the past five years with 108 deaths occurring in 2016.