Editorial

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In discussions about the extent to which governments should involve themselves in issues of public safety, rarely does the question of ''how far is too far?'' come up.

The reduction in the number of deaths and injuries in the workplace is typically attributed to increased regulation and oversight by government agencies, and road and airline travel is infinitely safer than was once the case because of the major regulatory role assumed by governments. Yet, in their rush to bureaucratise other safety issues, governments occasionally go too far.

The ACT government's response to a near-drowning at a school swimming carnival in March is a case in point. Its ''School Swimming Carnivals Procedures and Checklist'' policy issued this week imposes strict new requirements on principals, teachers and students. Before any public school pupil can take part in a carnival or swim fun day, they have to demonstrate to the satisfaction of teachers that they can enter the pool and walk for five metres, swim for 25 metres, float or tread water for one minute (while calling for help), exit the pool unassisted and perform a ''voice rescue'' of a friend or acquaintance by encouraging them to a point of safety. Children who successfully complete this test are then awarded a blue tag and the ''privilege'' of swimming under reduced supervision by teachers (with a minimum ratio of 20:1). The supervision requirement for yellow tag wearers is 10:1.

Former national swim coach turned water safety campaigner Laurie Lawrence says the new policy is a sign of a system ''going mad'', a sentiment likely to be shared by many in the community. Teachers are unhappy at the prospect of busy work schedules being extended to cover the supervision of assessments, and the Royal Life Saving Society - which devised the checklist back in 2008 - argues it was only ever intended to apply to ''unstructured free swimming'' and that it is too onerous to enforce at swimming carnivals.

That much seems obvious. The logical outcome of the policy is that schools will have to complete their testing before carnivals and fun days. For some, this may be a bridge too far. Already there are reports that some schools have abandoned end-of-year excursions to public pools.

In most respects the new policy is a step in the right direction. It will now be compulsory for all ACT primary school students to learn to swim, specifically by completing a two-week intensive program consisting of 10 half-hour program. The Swim and Survive course (another initiative of the Royal Life Saving Society) is intended to provide children aged 5 to 14 with a broad balance program of swimming, water safety, survival and rescue skills. The program has been subsidised by the ACT government since 2011 to ensure that students from low socio-economic backgrounds do not miss out, and now that lessons are to become mandatory this assistance will probably need to be widened.

The ad hoc nature of swimming training in the ACT will surprise some people, and perhaps can be attributed to past attitudes. Most children in Australia grow up around the beach and suburban swimming pools, and learn to swim as a matter of course, mostly in organised settings but sometimes in more unorthodox manners.

Canberra, however, is different. It lacks beaches, and private swimming pools across the city are sparse in number, reflecting what are typically short summers and long, cold winters. The relative scarcity of backyard pools, and the fact that this makes it harder for children to gain confidence and experience around water, actually increases the necessity for compulsory swimming lessons.

If responsible parents have reason to applaud the ACT government's decision to mandate lessons, swimming instructors such as Lawrence are also right to question whether the added requirement for additional assessment before swimming carnivals and excursions - ostensibly to ensure the safety of children taking part - might in fact contribute to the opposite occurring.

Rather than burdening teachers with the job of vetting their students' swimming abilities - and of keeping tabs on who are blue and yellow tag-holders - the government would be better employed liaising with the Royal Life Saving Society to figure a way around this, perhaps by tailoring the Swim and Survive course to a higher standard.

Safety concerns are best resolved by listening to the views of those at the coal-face, not by shrouding them in red tape.