The ACT Government is set to relax its school swimming policy.

The ACT Government is set to relax its school swimming policy. Photo: Elesa Lee

School students will no longer need competency tests to take part in structured swimming events after the ACT government softened a controversial swimming policy, but one swimming pool operator says the changes have come too late.

The first version of a new, hardline swimming carnival policy was introduced in November last year, forcing students to pass an individual competency test before they were allowed to take part in school swimming activities.

But after a backlash, which included water safety campaigner Laurie Lawrence labelling the rules “mad”, Education and Training Minister Joy Burch launched a re-worked policy on Thursday morning, which means students will no longer need to be tested to take part in structured events.

“There was some concern that the first version of this policy limited and perhaps did not encourage participation of kids to be involved in swimming and to get into the water and become water-aware and water safe. That was not the intention at all,” Ms Burch said.

Ms Burch said under the revised policy, which has been co-badged by Royal Life Saving, proficiency testing would still be required for unstructured swimming events where children would be in water above waist height – such as free time in the pool.

Royal Life Saving chief executive Sean Hodges said the policy made it clear that an unstructured activity was when there was “no direct instruction” given to students.

“Free-swimming is the risky area, and kids participating in free swimming need to have a level of swimming ability,” Mr Hodges said.

“We’re encouraging schools to try and structure their activities, try to have some sort direction there, so there really should be no need for a lot of schools to do actually do the proficiency test.”

But manager of Phillip Swimming and Ice Skating Centre John Raut said the changes have come too late, and it will take a long time for the local swimming pool industry to recover.

“I think it’s all come a little bit late. I think it doesn’t matter what is announced today – teachers and principals, they’re already on alert … they’ll probably stick with the policy that’s been put in place. I can’t see them changing all of a sudden,” Mr Raut said.

“It’d be hard to break it down, it’ll take a while for people to think it’s ok again for kids to come and swim.”

Mr Raut said the Phillip pool lost thousands of dollars as schools cancelled their end-of-year fun days, and failed to book swimming carnivals at the start of the year. He said they had a total of 10 carnivals booked for the first term, when in previous years the pool has had a carnival booked in every day.

Mr Raut said more emphasis should be put on teaching children to swim as part of general school activities, and encouraging fun in the water.

“I think the only big thing they should do is put a lot more effort into learn to swim, and then the whole thing comes good on its own,” he said. “It’s all about kids enjoying the water and that’s how they become competent.”

But the Minister denied long-term reputation of the swimming pools had been damaged, and said the revised policy’s key aim was to encourage schools and students to participate in structured swimming programs.

“The Royal Life Saving society, through Sean, will be very active in that encouragement to principals,” Ms Burch said.

“Even with that free-time, if you put some structure around it … then that’s a structured activity, but still a lot of fun.”

Ms Burch said a working group for the revised policy included representation by a swimming pool operator.

The owner of Big Splash Water Park Ron Watkins had earlier told Fairfax Media he was concerned at the lack of communication from the ACT government over the issue.

Mr Watkins said he wouldn’t comment on the changes to the policy until he had more information.

“I’d like to wait and see what they say,” he said.

Swimming safety advocate Laurie Lawrence told Fairfax Media swimming policies should be based on common sense, rather than hardline rules.

“Sometimes we lose focus in our drive to be politically correct,” he said. “Common sense is if you’re taking a fun day out for the kids, then you need to make sure there are lifeguards available at the centre that you’re at, you need to make sure that the water depth that you’ve taken the kids to, they can stand up in it.”

Mr Lawrence acknowledged that it was a “huge responsibility” taking children to aquatic events, and that the rules should be different for well-structured swimming carnivals compared to free-for-all fun days.

The tough swimming policy was brought into effect following the near-drowning of a year 6 Forrest Primary student in March.

with Christopher Knaus