Following the tragic incident that happened at Babbs Mill Lake in Solihull over the weekend, there has been an outcry of support to increase education and knowledge related to water safety. The team at the Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS UK) has picked up a long list of national, regional and local media engagements and there has been a consistent question that has come from journalists –  Why are so many school children lacking essential water safety knowledge?

This has been supported with reminiscing about former approaches through public information films and broadcasts. The reality is that the technology and media landscape has changed so much. Whilst at one time posting some content, on TV, at 4pm in the afternoon would reach a large proportion of children there is now so much choice for children and young people, and it has become extremely difficult to guarantee maximum reach.

The question though is not a question for RLSS UK but a question that needs to be posed to Government and this blog explains more...

Lee Heard, Charity Director at RLSS UK, praises the work of the emergency services, who the charity works closely with to share crucial messaging around water safety, but asks what more can be done to keep children safe:

“What is guaranteed is that the majority of children can be reached through the education system. The answer on keeping children safe around water is simple. Education. Only with class-based education and removing insurmountable barriers for some schools to travel to pool spaces will we be able to give every child the opportunity to learn crucial knowledge and skills to make informed decisions and be safe around water.

For many years, we at RLSS UK have been working tirelessly to raise awareness of barriers and lobby to try and push forwards with getting class-based water safety education on the national curriculum. It should not take yet another tragedy, and even more innocent young lives lost, to have to put the case forwards once again.

If you speak to Government about this subject they will provide rhetoric and spin. It is positive that in the national curriculum for England that swimming and water safety are included on the PE curriculum but for too many years now this has been used to mask inherent inadequacies and inequalities in their policy position on water safety. Pre-COVID, almost 1 in 4 children (24% of) were not hitting the statutory ‘can self-rescue’ standard[i]. Worryingly there is huge disparity between high and low affluence households, as well as between different ethnic backgrounds, with those from the lowest affluence and those from ethnic minorities most likely to fail to reach the statutory standards.

41.2% low affluence, 23.3% medium affluence, 12% high affluence

Fig 1: The proportion (%) of UK children (years 3-11) who do not meet statutory ‘self-rescue’ standards by family affluence (2017/18).

19.6% White British, 23.3% White Other, 33.9% Asian, 39% Black, 27.1% Mixed, 42.8% Other ethnicity

Fig 2: The proportion (%) of UK children (years 3-11) who do not meet statutory ‘self-rescue’ standards by ethnicity (2017/18).

This uneven playing field is well known and RLSS UK has been asking questions of Government since 2017 about reviewing its approach to ensure equal access. This has been followed up by a petition by water safety campaigner and bereaved parent Becky Ramsey who sadly lost her son Dylan Ramsey to drowning in 2011. The petition received over 108,000 signatures. The Government responses indicated no desire to change its approach, instead included a list of approaches and highlighting the hard work of other organisations who have no statutory responsibility. It is worth reiterating that even pre-COVID those from white, affluent families were much more likely to have access to this lifesaving education, proof that the approaches were not working.

The fact is that charities, individuals, organisations and schools who believe in increasing water safety knowledge have been working tirelessly to fill this gap. RLSS UK is not alone, there are incredible organisations doing great work locally and nationally and work is supported by the National Water Safety Forum. We personally have produced resources year after year for our Drowning Prevention Week (DPW) campaigns during the summer months, and these are always widely used by many schools across the UK and Ireland, but this is not enough and we cannot, even across partners, educate everyone alone.

In 2022 during DPW, over 1.2m million children were educated using our free water safety resources but there are over 10.6 million school aged children in the UK. So ,what about those 9.4 million children? Would they know how to stay safe around water? Would they know what to do if they got into difficulty or saw someone in trouble? Or will we see even more sad news in the years that follow? We have the resources, and we have the knowledge to share but only 1 in 5 children have had water safety education in school in the last year. We have to ask why there is resistance to make this small change to include a short class-based water safety lesson on the curriculum?

The current situation is much worse, there has been an obvious decline in attainment since COVID. Of course, a global pandemic has presented it challenges but the worrying fact is that in many cases, this decline was seen in 20/21 and is not showing signs of recovery.  The most recent data shared through the 2022 Active Lives Survey shows that only 34.7% of children from low affluence families are able swim 25m unaided.  This means that children from low affluence families are half as likely (34.7%) to be able to swim 25m unaided than those from high income families (76.4%)[ii].

34.4% low affluence, 55.2% medium affluence, 76.4% high affluence

Fig 3: The proportion (%) of UK children (years 1-11) who can swim 25m unaided standards by family affluence (2021/22).

62.5% white british, 55.2% white other, 42.4% asian, 43.6% black, 53.9% mixed, 51.3% other ethnicity

Fig 4: The proportion (%) of UK children (years 1-11) who can swim 25m unaided standards by ethnicity (2021/22).

The Government seems content that 80% of schools surveyed are currently offering school swimming, the detail shows a very different picture and says a lot about the acceptance of achievements against pre-set outcomes and standards.

The barriers for some schools are simply insurmountable for a number of reasons. The further backdrop is that there are real and perceived barriers for schools to access swimming spaces. The future landscape is due to make this more challenging, we already know that in 2022 there has been a 5.1% decrease in swimming facilities and UK Active has recently reported that 40% of council areas are at risk of losing their leisure centre(s) or seeing reduced services at their leisure centre(s) before 31 March 2023.

We know that swimming and water safety is already on the national curriculum, but we also know that unfortunately this isn't a successful policy to meet the Government’s own stated outcomes. Water safety goes hand-in-hand with swimming. We will always advocate for swimming as a life and water skill but our research shows that swimming is quite simply not enough.  In our analysis of 83 accidental drownings of 8–18-year-olds in the UK, 3 in 5 (61%) were described as swimmers by their friends and family.  This data suggests that being able to swim alone isn’t a guarantee of staying safe in, on and around water.

We have lesson plans which can be incorporated into existing lessons such as English, Maths, Science and more, for all age groups from early years to primary, to secondary school students. We want to be proactive when educating children on water safety, not reactive when we hear of a tragedy like we saw in Solihull at the weekend.

For this to change we need support from the very top. We need the Government to accept and acknowledge that:

  1. Its approach isn’t working for all of our communities and to acknowledge
  2. One drowning or water related death is one too many, and
  3. Each accidental drowning can be avoided by education that doesn’t require huge investment in time or finances to take pupils to a pool.

We are calling on the Government to make a change; to finally put water safety education on the class-based curriculum, to give every single child the chance to know how to stay safe in and around water, to ensure that families don’t have to go through the heartache that so many have already endured and to simply care for our children and their futures.

Education will save lives.”

View water safety education resources

View our winter water safety guidance and resources

[i] Sports England Active Lives Survey (2017-18)
[ii] Sports England Active Lives Survey (2021-22)