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As community pools around South Canterbury reopen for another year, it seems timely to take a look at the swimming abilities of school pupils across the region. Last month, Water Safety NZ announced it was putting more funding into its Water Skills for Life programme in schools, along with funding research into New Zealand’s drowning rate. Courier reporter Greta Yeoman investigates.


It may be cold and damp outside, but inside Timaru’s CBay facilities, school pupils look right at home in the water, practising their water safety skills.

One group of children practises floating on their backs, decked out in life jackets, while in another pool other pupils are making fake waves with foam boards for a schoolmate to swim through.

Only a third of schools still maintain pools

Only one third of primary schools in the Timaru district still have their own pool.

The seven schools – Geraldine Primary, Winchester Rural, Temuka Primary, Grantlea Downs, Barton Rural, Beaconsfield and Highfield – have pools on-site, but also take part in Water Skills for Life programme at community pools in the district, including CBay.

One of these schools is Grantlea Downs, which uses its own pool for its junior pupils, while those in years 5-8 take part in the Water Skills programme at CBay.

Acting principal Sandra Annett says keeping the school’s pool in action was decided by the Board of Trustees, as it meant junior pupils got regular swim time.

“It provides them with confidence in the water [and] regular time in the water.”

“Water confidence and skills are important for all children.”

While the New Zealand Health and Physical Education Curriculum states the expectation that all school pupils “will have had opportunities to learn basic aquatic skills by the end of year 6”, how this is interpreted is up for debate.

The Ministry of Education suggests one way of providing “basic aquatic skills” is through schools having their own pools.

However, the cost of maintaining or upgrading school pools has prompted the closure of several across the district, including the pool at Timaru South School.

Timaru South principal Mike Hogan said he had “absolutely no regrets” about closing the school’s pool in 2016, which was too small for more confident swimmers at the school.

Pupils now attended the fortnight-long water safety programme at CBay.

“[They] . . . make significant progress during this two-week period.”

Bluestone School’s Ian Poulter said the swimming skills of pupils in 2018, compared to a decade ago, had “vastly” improved.

The change in focus to water safety, now being taught by trained staff instead of teachers, in an indoor pool warm enough to be used in all weather all makes a big difference, he says.

“A small school pool was also not deep enough to teach treading of water or other survival techniques.”

Swimming coach Kevin Hessell said it was unfortunate many schools had closed their pools due to the cost.

“Those kids could be swimming every day.”

It is Gleniti School’s turn to take part in Swimming NZ’s Water Skills for Life programme at CBay.

It is one of 16 state primary schools in the Timaru district that takes part in the fortnight-long, annual water safety skills scheme, CBay’s recreation facilities manager Craig Motley says.

He estimates 2300 children have been taught this year through the scheme, which started in Timaru six years ago and is aimed at pupils in years 3-8.

School pupils attend for 10 sessions over a two-week period, focusing on survival in water over swimming ability.

Paddling pals . . . Gleniti School pupils (back, from left) Josh Wilson-Jones (11), Charlie Gould (10) and Daniel Bruce (11), with (front, from left) Paige Crump (10), Nick Butler (10), Oakley McKnight (10) and Taya Morley-McIntyre (11) practice swimming in life jackets at the CBay last week.

“[They learn] about survival in the water, including safety and awareness of different conditions in all bodies of water.”

For many schools across the district, the fortnight of lessons at CBay is the main water-based education children get each year.

In a country surrounded by water, where 16 of the 92 people who died in preventable drownings last year were aged 15-24, some insist two weeks in the water is not enough.

Timaru-based swimming coach Kevin Hessell, who used to be the council’s assistant pools superintendent and now runs his own swimming school in Sarah St, questions how much children can learn and retain from a fortnight of lessons per year.

“They’re not going to learn to swim in two weeks.”

“You’ve got to give them more time.”

However, he says some components of the water safety focus during the school lessons – such as what do if you fall out of a boat wearing a life jacket – are valuable.

“We are [as a country] surrounded by water.”

However, Gleniti School principal Steve Zonnevylle says the level of lessons pupils get at CBay are far better than when the school had its own pool.

“The amount of swimming lessons might be down, but the quality is way higher.”

Making waves . . . Gleniti School pupil Jack Houston (9, left) practices floating on his back while his classmates (right, from back) Finn Giddings (9), Jacob Borkowski (11), Caleb Turner (10) and Tessa James (10) make “waves”. PHOTOS: GRETA YEOMAN

He says Timaru schools are “lucky” they can access the programme at CBay, because the cost of private lessons is restrictive for many families.

Bluestone School got rid of its pool in 2005 when it redeveloped the grounds after its role doubled, principal Ian Poulter says.

It now buses its pupils to CBay for the two-week water safety programme.

While he admits that schools are an important part of teaching water safety, families need to accept that it is not the sole responsibility of education providers to teach children to swim.

“There are never enough hours to do full justice to every part of the curriculum and even swimming, while important, is only a small part of . . . our NZ curriculum.”

“If children are to become competent swimmers then joining a swimming club is an important option.”