75 years with lives on the line
In recognition of the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Swimming Teachers’ Association The Leisure Review went to Walsall to find out what has changed for water safety in three quarters of a century. Jonathan Ives reports
Off the wall: Steve Franks and Roger Millward
By the time interview arrangements have been made and diaries co-ordinated, it is very near to the end of the Swimming Teachers’ Association’s 75th anniversary year when The Leisure Review arrives at the organisation’s Walsall headquarters to mark the occasion. There to greet us are Roger Millward, the STA’s long-term chief executive, and Steve Franks, the STA’s operations director, and, with acquaintances renewed and tea distributed, we settle around the table in the picture-lined board room to wonder about three quarters of a century of swimming teaching and water safety.
The basics of the anniversary are swiftly despatched. Founded in 1932, the STA was created as a result of a disagreement within the ranks of the Amateur Swimming Association. Although the precise details of the argument have been lost among the organisational minutiae or perhaps just decorously forgotten, the circumstances of professional teachers provoking the raising of eyebrows within an amateur sporting body of the time are not hard to imagine. The two organisations have pursued their own particular paths with varying levels of cordiality ever since. In 1996 the STA was officially registered as a charity and the business was significantly overhauled to meet the demands of an organisation addressing safety issues across the general water environment – not just pools – in a modern leisure environment.
“It was always not-for-profit,” Roger explained, “but the charitable objective is to save lives in the aquatic environment. In terms of business, we were for a large number of years primarily a badge scheme. That was 90% of our business and 10% was training teachers. Now it is split roughly one third the badge scheme, one third training teachers and others, and one third the other aspects of the business: membership and so on.”
From his operational perspective, Steve Franks plots the organisation’s development in terms of “the incremental milestones”. He listed them carefully: “One was the original break away in the 1930s to do something different that the market was determining. Then the organisation grew, evolved and drifted up until about fifteen years ago when Roger came in and fundamentally re-engineered the business financially. That then led to a whole series of other decisions that changed the organisation: it looked at becoming a QCA-accredited awarding body, re-energising its international dimension and looked at its portfolio of services.”
Becoming an awarding body accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) was, Steve argued, one of the most important developments for an organisation looking to make a significant response to the requirements of a changing leisure industry.
“When the STA became an accrediting body it fundamentally changed its emphasis,” he said. “Education took a much higher profile. Professionalisation has been fundamental in changing how we work going forward, in that we have looked at the professionalisation of water safety in its broadest context. It’s very much about saying how do we look at standards and how do we look at the development of the people in the context of water safety, be it swimming teachers, lifeguarding or through policy advice on water safety.”
The international aspect of the organisation’s work has included the development of the International Federation of Swimming Teachers’ Associations, which has representatives in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sri Lanka. The STA also has projects in Dubai and the UAE.
“We have a true international perspective to what we’re doing and therefore the aspect of water safety internationally is very important,” Steve said. “The international dimension is about moving away from a single-product organisation into an organisation that has built its core strength around water safety.”
This focus on water safety also brought the area of privately run swim schools to the STA’s attention. The growth of such schools has been one of the most noticeable developments in the learn-to-swim sector over recent years and the issue of operating standards within these schools prompted the STA to explore quality assurance in association with the British Standards Institution. The result in 2005 was PAS 81, a ‘publicly available specification for the management and operation of swimming schools’. The document offers health and safety advice to swim school operators and includes guidance on areas such as pool safety operating procedures, emergency action plans and staffing. With the private swim school market now outstripping the local authority learn-to-swim sector, Steve argues that a move towards recognised professional standards in what had been an unregulated part of the industry was long overdue.
“Again this is right back to our core business, which is about water safety, water safety and more water safety,” he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of kids going through these programmes, thousands of businesses out there, and one of my passions is how we get to the point where we can ensure that they are operating to at least minimum industry standards of good practice. Part of the rationale was to create the BSi standard and to move that on. It will go back out for industry review shortly but it’s a particular passion for me because it has everything in it in terms of child protection, standards, insurance, health and safety, all those kind of things that we take for granted and it affects everyone.”
While the leisure industry and the society it serves may have changed, could one argue that the STA’s members are doing essentially the same job as they were when the organisation was founded? Roger was adamant that this is not the case.
“No, the membership has changed. Originally it was swimming teachers, period. Now it is swimming teachers, lifeguards, first aiders, pool and spa people, aquacise; and the membership is growing rapidly.”
The STA now has some 5,000 members. Twelve years ago the number stood at 1,200. The organisation’s education operation has grown sixteen-fold in the same time and swim teaching qualifications (as opposed to badges) are running at around 35,000 a year.
Fun, rather than a technically superlative stroke, is emphasised within the STA’s approach to teaching swimming but, given that the Olympic mantra is never far away from any discussion of sport and active participation at the moment, we wonder how important the sport of swimming is to those involved with the learn-to-swim end of the pool. Is the podium important to water safety?
“The number one priority is about making young people and everyone else safe and competent in the water,” Steve said. “That’s the starting position. There’s always an expectation that there may be one or two who will step into a club environment, go into a county structure and at some point go and compete internationally. There are examples of pathways from our learn-to-swim programme to an ASA-affiliated club structure and going on to compete. There are examples of that but that’s not the starting base: that’s always the water safety aspect, the competence.”
Having survived and thrived as an organisation for its first 75 years, both Roger and Steve have some clear ideas about the initial challenges for the STA as it moves towards its centenary. For Roger the issues of funding, whether for leisure generally or within the STA’s particular markets, remain paramount.
“I think there will be less government money, more private money,” he said. “There will be more controls, health and safety-type issues, and we’ve got to continue to offer quality and value for money.”
For Steve the issue of strategic collaboration will be towards the top of the list. “We have some very good relationships with bodies like the Association of Physical Education. I think the whole issue of collaborative working, but being very selective about organisations, is one of the things that we should be doing. I think we are now strong enough to be standing out and setting the pace in a number of areas, which we might not have done historically.”
Whether this collaboration will include closer working with the ASA remains a moot point. While both Roger and Steve are careful to be placatory in their language, the issue clearly rankles. Licensing for swim teachers, initiated by the ASA, is mentioned briefly, as is the ASA declining invitations to be involved with the creation of the International Federation of Swimming Teachers’ Associations and the development of standards for swim schools. The lack of co-operation from a national governing body which is publicly funded to the tune of £7m a year is apparently part of the STA’s ongoing dialogue with ministers.
Moving the conversation on, Steve summed up the problem. “I think it’s symptomatic of our industry sector as a whole: people working in silos, building empires and absolute self-interest. We take a much broader perspective across the industry. It is a major challenge that is not unique to us; it’s frustrating to us but certainly not unique. As a board member of ILAM and ISPAL, I saw the trauma day in and day out but it was symptomatic of what our industry is like as a whole.”
In summary of the 75th anniversary celebrations and in deference to the honorary life governorship of the Council of Irish Water Safety recently presented by ministers of the Irish government, we let Roger have the final word on the achievements of the STA to date and its work in the future.
“What you have to remember is that we are about saving lives. I can’t save lives, Steve can’t save lives. All we can do is empower lots of other people to do it. That means volume and quality, and that is what we are about. The more people who are trained in safety in all its aspects, be they children learning about water safety, trained teachers or lifeguards, the more chance we’ve got to reduce death by drowning.”
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“I think it’s symptomatic of our industry sector as a whole: people working in silos, building empires and absolute self-interest. We take a much broader perspective across the industry."