A group of women from ethnic minority groups in one of the most deprived areas of Coventry have trained as lifeguards to inspire local women and girls to swim.

The women come from Foleshill, which has some of the worst health outcomes in Coventry. Air quality is amongst the poorest in the city due to the close location of four major arterial trunk roads, with nitrogen dioxide levels amongst the worst 20 per cent for England, Scotland and Wales. A quarter of households in Foleshill live in fuel poverty compared to 15.3 per cent across Coventry, while children in the last year of primary school are more likely to be obese than for the city as a whole.

Coventry charity Positive Youth Foundation has been working to empower local women and girls, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds, to take on leadership roles and influence within their communities.

As part of its work, the charity collaborated with Coventry City Council, CV Life, which manages swimming pools across the city and other local partners to deliver the Go Foleshill project. Funded by Sport England, the scheme saw five women complete the RLSS UK’s National Pool Lifeguard Qualification (NPLQ) – the UK and Ireland’s most popular and respected lifeguarding course.

Culturally sensitive training

Positive Youth Foundation’s consultation with the Foleshill community revealed that women wanted to learn to swim in a culturally appropriate environment. CV Life, which manages Centre AT7, ran a weekly women-only swimming session at the sports and leisure venue, but with the current national shortage of lifeguards, it couldn’t always guarantee a female lifeguard would be on duty. This meant many women couldn’t attend the session when a male lifeguard was present.

To solve the problem, local women decided to train as NPLQ lifeguards with RLSS UK. Facilitated by the Go Foleshill project and held at Centre AT7, the training was tailored to respect and accommodate the cultural sensitivities of the participants, with a female tutor and assessor, no males in the pool during training sessions and time for daily prayers.

“The ladies on this course were absolutely incredible. It was so important to them to keep the women-only swimming session going that some of them learned to swim and went on to qualify as lifeguards in less than 12 months. That’s truly impressive,” says course tutor Charlotte Booth.

RLSS UK assessor Julie Thomas was similarly impressed. 

“This is one of the best groups I have ever assessed. It was so inspiring to see how the ladies integrated into the centre, firstly on a learn to swim programme, then onto the NPLQ. So many barriers were removed for them: there was no mixing with males, they could pray during the assessments, and they wore leggings and long-sleeved tops in the pool. Some of the ladies were still learning English, so completing a theory paper was a massive achievement. The atmosphere, support and community spirit among the group were amazing – there were cheers, tears and hugs for all after the assessment. I came away with the biggest buzz.”

Increased participation

In addition to the lifeguard training, the Go Foleshill project also saw 11 women qualify as swimming instructors.

“Together, these women have become role models for their community, inspiring more women and girls to engage in swimming and aquatic activities. The initiative led to an increase in the participation of women and girls in swimming lessons and recreational swimming sessions. And because women are teaching swimming and working as lifeguards, more young women are signing up to learn to swim,” says Nikki Miles, programmes manager at Positive Youth Foundation.

CV Life has gone on to introduce three new women-only swimming sessions, which are lifeguarded by the newly trained Foleshill women, and is looking to add more if new lifeguards can be trained.

The BBC radio Leicester presenter, Summaya Mughal, documented her own learning-to-swim journey for her popular podcast Brown Gal Can’t Swim while exploring why many South Asian women are less likely to swim.

Mughal, who spoke at the recent RLSS UK conference, said: “We should be encouraging everyone to learn to swim and become lifeguards, but we have to recognise that some communities – like mine – may face additional challenges. These can be overcome by engaging with members of those communities. I don’t know of a single operator that doesn’t want to have more people in their pool. Working with the local grassroots community will help to encourage more women and girls to swim and get into lifeguarding. It’s all about making these activities more visible so that people see others who look like them working as lifeguards and swimming teachers. I did the Brown Gal Can’t Swim podcast to encourage more women like me to learn to swim, and I’ve had messages from people up and down the country who have been inspired to take up swimming as a result, so it works.”

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