Something is obviously awry when a country with one of the worst drowning rates in the developed world is struggling to save the very places where many youngsters learn to swim.
Generations of New Zealanders remember the school swimming pools where they were taught the skills necessary to be safe in the water. This laid the foundation for long and happy days swimming, sailing or fishing.
Yet many of those pools have been closed over the past few years because of a lack of maintenance funds, and many others may be about to share the same fate.
This has led Water Safety New Zealand to enlist Olympic swimmer Lauren Boyle to support a campaign to save 130 school pools from closing. The schools have said they cannot afford to run their pools this summer. Their demise would add to the 156 pools that have closed in the past six years. At these schools, budgets have been examined and other priorities have been deemed more important.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
That decision reflects both the expense of the pools and many parents' preparedness to arrange private lessons for their children. It may be equally significant that the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum laid down no specific requirements for schools. It merely noted that "it is expected that all students will have had opportunities to learn basic aquatic skills by the end of Year 6".
In urban areas, the rationale for closing school pools is strongest. Often, basic skills can be taught at council facilities, where the charge will be less than running their own pools. But in rural areas that may not be an option. Water Safety NZ says the closures to date may have had an effect after a relatively short time.
"We are concerned that we may already be starting to see the impact of fewer school pools on the 15-24 age drowning toll," says chief executive, Matt Claridge.
Another factor in the toll could be the many migrants who have not spent much time around the water.
Certainly, swimming standards generally are declining. Water Safety NZ reckons that just one in five 10-year-olds can swim 200m, its benchmark for surviving in the water. A strong case can, therefore, be made for including formal standards for swimming in the curriculum. That, in turn, would demand government funding so schools could meet the requirement. Such expenditure would be worthwhile. Swimming lessons are, after all, one of the few things that schools teach that can actually save a child's life.
As it is, schools are having to come up with creative solutions to keep their pools open. Some raise money by sharing their facility with other schools, while others allow members of the public to use their pools, especially over school holidays. Funds are also raised in traditional ways and from various community sources and businesses. All these emphasise that the pool is a community resource and that there is a shared responsibility to teach youngsters to swim.
That is a laudable approach. Aided by heightened awareness arising from Water Safety NZ's campaign, it may yet prove sufficient to put an end to pool closures. If not, government intervention will be required. One thing is certain: teaching children to swim well is the only way we will improve this country's dreadful water safety record.