Federal Politics


Equip the children for life, make them swim

I WOULD like us all to jump into the deep end and talk about swimming. I know I'm a good week behind the times, but who else is being run off their feet at this end of the school year? Assemblies, carols, presentations and parties … the calendar is full. I even found it hard to get excited by the fact that Kate Middleton is having a baby. Good on her I thought, only six years until she's doing the school run, or at least organising her servants to do the school run, or dashing upstairs to the nursery to check that the private tutor is carrying on just fine with lessons. Excited? Well, maybe just a little bit. But too exhausted to care too much.

It's somewhat ironic, then, that the one hour I know I will get to sit down this week is when my children are at swimming lessons. Pretty much once a week for close to 10 years I've had an hour to myself. During that time I've read books, made friends, done nothing at all, progressed from being in the pool, to being by the pool. I've even done work interviews. Ray Martin was particularly worried once that I wasn't actually watching my children. Whatever way I fill it, it's an hour for me. Despite the rush involved in getting there - goggles, where are the goggles?! - swimming has been part of our family life for a good decade.

And in that time my children have learned to swim. Exceptionally well. Sometimes I just spend the hour watching them, gracefully, yet powerfully swimming laps, their little bodies gliding through the water. They seem so at home.

The water was never home to me. As a child we had a yearly beach holiday where we'd spend two weeks in the waves, getting dumped, in the pool, getting sunburnt, going to bed with that dizzy feeling you get when you've spent too long in the water. There was a pool in my home town but there'd be more action out of than in the water, it was just a place to hang out, and the water just a place to cool off. I'd do the right thing and participate in swimming carnivals, not that we had them in primary school as far as I can remember, but come high school we'd go in everything, even the diving, just because it was the right thing to do.

My husband is also an exceptional swimmer. Watching him swim is equally as therapeutic, his slow, powerful stroke now easy to pick out in a pack of triathlon starters. Like many other things, he probably convinced me it would be a good thing that the children should start swimming. Or perhaps keep swimming. Swimming lessons with a baby are a good way to fill a day: sociable, fun, a good place to meet other mothers squeezing back into their bathers.

Swimming lessons with a school-aged child become a little more like any other activity crammed into the afternoon. For the one on the pool deck at least. The water has always had a soothing effect on them.


But the point I'm getting to, is that I can not, CAN NOT (and yes I want to use capital letters), understand people who don't teach their children to swim. Just this week, or was it last, the ACT government announced a new policy that would require teachers to assess students before any school swimming activity. Students must be able to enter the pool and walk for five metres, swim for 25 metres, float or tread water for one minute and call for help in that time, leave the pool unassisted and perform a voice rescue of another friend, encouraging them to a point of safety. If they can't they'll get a yellow tag and need to be supervised at a ratio of 10:1. How do schools manage that? Almost impossible.

At a school swimming carnival this year - while I was being a lifeguard, and there's some irony there - I got talking to a chap who was the head lifeguard at this particular pool. He looked more like a bouncer than a lifeguard, and had a military background, but he was more happy to tell me about his experiences at such carnivals. We all heard of the incident involving a student at a swimming carnival earlier this year when a year 6 student nearly drowned during free time. This fellow told me he'd pull at least one kid out the water at every carnival he attended. This day he didn't, but a few kids were thrown noodles or ropes to get them to safety.

I get the fact that swimming lessons don't come cheap. Perhaps that's where the government needs to be focussing its efforts - subsidised lessons rather than enforced protocols. But there are many things we need to teach our kids that don't come cheap. School itself, to some extent, music lessons, how to drive a car, how to play golf, or dance …

Even in land-locked Canberra every child should know how to swim. I know of one woman who won't take her sons to the beach or to the pool, she keeps them home on swimming carnival day because, she says, they can't swim.

No, it's because they haven't learned how.

I think she even kept them home from the compulsory Swim and Survive course, run by the Royal Life Saving Society and subsided by the government since 2011, because they would be embarrassed by being in a class with kids many years their junior who are swimming at their level. This course is a two-week intensive program, 30 minutes a day, and it provides children with water safety, survival and rescue skills.

It is a step, or indeed a stroke, in the right direction, but no child is going to learn how to swim in five hours.

A child needs to be introduced to the water as soon as possible.

Not every one of them is going to be an exceptional swimmer but the skills they learn might enable them to stay alive.