The Royal Life Saving Society will urge the ACT government to make swimming education mandatory in all primary schools as it launches a campaign today to prevent children and young adults from drowning.
The society's ACT chief executive officer Sean Hodges says the shrinking numbers of children taking part in swimming education is reflected in the increased number of deaths.
Over the past 10 years there has been a 25 per cent increase in drownings of 15- to 25-year-olds, with 371 young Australians drowning since 2002.
''We really need to try and make swimming education a blanket school program, so that it's compulsory for all children to get involved through schools, to make sure that they get at least the basic skills to save themselves,'' Mr Hodges said.
In the ACT, only one in three children take part in school or vacation swimming programs.
Cost is the greatest barrier families cite for not sending their children to swimming lessons, the society says.
With 10 school-based lessons costing on average $76 a child, and private swimming programs costing upwards of $150 a child, many families cannot afford this education, Mr Hodges said.
The ACT Council of Social Services director Roslyn Dundas says the rising cost of education generally is hurting families, who are being forced to make tough decisions about schooling priorities.
While the government provides some assistance via bursaries and scholarships, it is not enough for many families, she said.
''When a child can't afford to attend a school excursion, it has a negative social impact which then affects their wellbeing and academic performance,'' she said.
When Labor formed a minority government in 2008, one condition of the Greens' support was to increase the funding of swimming education in primary schools, resulting in a $5000 grant schools could apply for under the ACT Primary School Swim and Survive program.
Education and Training Directorate spokesman Stephen Gilfedder said: ''This year $140,000 is provided to be spent on swimming and water safety programs, and supports students who for financial, cultural or other reasons would not have the opportunity to learn swimming and water safety skills.
''An additional $60,000 is provided to the ACT Royal Life Saving Society for the administration of swimming and water safety programs for public schools.''
Nationally, research conducted by the RLS indicates at least 600,000 Australians between the ages of 15 and 24 have no water safety education, and many others still are not confident swimmers.
Mr Hodges says that while the federal, state and territory governments have made advances on pool safety standards, there is no replacement for swimming education.
''We're really focusing on getting schools involved,'' he said.
''Obviously we push for parents to get their own kids involved, but if we can make it a compulsory part of primary school education then hopefully all kids will have the opportunity to learn the basics and we can reduce the number of children drowning.''