An innovative programme to improve water safety and tackle drowning rates has been launched in the Rotorua district.

The Rotorua Lakes Swim School and Swim Rotorua have joined forces for the "Making the Difference" Water Safety Project.

The project will help schools ensure Rotorua children know key water safety messages and aims to have every child in the district being able to swim 200m, along with being able to float for more than five minutes, before reaching secondary school.

Rotorua Lakes Swim School manager Megan Douglas said the school had received $45,000 in funding from the Rotorua Lakes Council, BayTrust and the Rotorua Energy Charitable Trust.

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It had also received support from Rotorua Aquatic Centre, Te Arawa Lakes Trust and Swimming New Zealand, with all organisations involved contributing time and resources, she said.

She said it was a bespoke programme tailored to meet each school's individual needs. It has started work with 13 schools.

The project also works to upskill teachers and during term one this year ran a workshop for 30 local teachers, with Swimming New Zealand.

"If we can improve the skills of teachers and volunteers we can quickly make an impact on aquatic skill levels and eventually on the drowning rate itself."

Horohoro School teacher Joseph Assen said the programme had helped develop his expertise as a teacher, and "more importantly - the swimming and survival abilities of students in my class".

This year the programme will work with about 1500 children and teachers, in about 15 schools.

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So far this year this year the programmed had worked with more than 530 children, Swim Rotorua coach and school liaison manager Claire Baylis said.

"If we get kids swimming 200m they are fit, healthy, confident and it's a life skill, like reading and writing - it's essential for water safety."

She said a common thing was for kids to over-estimate what they could do.

"Lots of whanau think if their tamariki can swim a length or two of the school pool their job is over, but that is not the case.

"All children need to get to the basic swim safe standards at as early an age as possible, and they need to maintain it too."

The focus of the project is children in Years 4 to 8..

Water safety:

* One person drowned in Rotorua last year

* Seven people were hospitalised last year in Rotorua as a result of a water/swimming incident

* 34 people have drowned in New Zealand in the year to date.

- Water Safety New Zealand