A rise in preventable drownings in Rotorua has seen nearly 1500 Rotorua school kids participate in a water safety programme over the summer school terms.

The Kia Tu Whakarereke - Making the Difference Water Safety Programme aims to increase water safety in children in Rotorua. It's a partnership between SwimMagic Rotorua and the Rotorua Swimming Club.

Despite a drop in preventable drownings nationally last year, in Rotorua eight people died in preventable drownings, up from five the year before.

Throughout 2018, 2500 pupils went through the programme - nearly two-thirds were Māori and 81 per cent were from decile five or lower schools.

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Pupils between Years 4 and 8, mainly from lower decile schools took part in the programme, either at their school pools or the aquatic centre.

The programme focused on intermediate schools last year as that age group was seen to overestimate their skills and parents assumed this age was safe in the water because they could swim a length.

Swim Rotorua manager Claire Baylis said this was a problem as parents then thought their children would be safe in rivers and lakes.

Coaches, transport and entry to the pools were paid for through funding grants and donations of togs and goggles removed more financial barriers.

The donations meant about 40 children could take part in the programme who would not have otherwise been able to, SwimMagic Making the Difference administrator Tara Watt said.

Decile 1 school Sunset Primary School was given free transport, lessons, and togs.

The school does not have a pool and is the pilot school for the council's Child Equity programme.

Children practising swimming through simulated rough water. Photo / Supplied
Children practising swimming through simulated rough water. Photo / Supplied

Principal Eden Chapman said this took away financial barriers and pupils who would not otherwise have had the opportunity could take part - and he had noticed a big improvement in skills.

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"Learning to swim in New Zealand shouldn't just be for those that can afford it," he said.

He said the programme was something he would like to see all schools eventually take part in.

Chapman said all the lakes and rivers in the area added to the urgency of children needing to know how to swim.

As well as skills like floating, submerging and how to signal for help, children worked in the classroom with their teachers to learn about water safety and awareness.

Baylis said they wanted those already in the programme to get the best out of it, but would love to include more schools in the future.

But water safety was a three-way responsibility and the programme was just one contributor, Baylis said.

She said schools needed to take responsibility for classroom education and additional swimming lessons and whānau for safe exposure to water environments at the very least.

Head coach Alastair Johnson said he hoped children would want to develop their skills and be inspired to take part in water sports and events around Rotorua.

"It is a community partnership which aims to empower students and teachers in what is both a life skill and a great sport."