To swim or not to swim
The government is to invest £140 million to make swimming free for all by 2012 but in their efforts to tackle obesity they may be missing out on a very important part of the community. Roger Millward, chief executive of the Swimming Teachers’ Association, explains.
The government is making a £140 million investment to provide ‘free swimming’ and get two million people more active by 2012. It is being seen as an important element of the London Olympics legacy and a key aspect of helping to help ease the strain on NHS resources. The initiative itself is to be implemented in two phases: the initial phase is focused on the sixty-plus demographic and in phase two they will be looking at the under-sixteen age group. In essence the goal is to get people far more active and get far more people involved in sport. Swimming, being the most popular sport, has been identified as one of the routes to achieve some of the key objectives the government has set out.
We would applaud the initiatives to get more people more active but there are a number of concerns. One of the first is how the government has failed to consult stakeholders involved in swimming in its widest context. My organisation, the Swimming Teachers’ Association, which represents around 45% of the swimming teaching profession in the UK, is a case in point. Another concern, which arguably results from this lack of consultation, is that the initiative will miss a crucial part of the target group: those who cannot already swim.
It is all very well improving access for those who can swim – it will undoubtedly improve their health and wellbeing – but what about those tens of thousands of people who cannot swim? There has been very little consideration given to how some of this grant aid money could be used to subsidise swimming lessons and therefore widen the scope of people who can access these facilities. The issue also involves swimming’s unique status as a sport that you cannot participate in unless you learn a new skill: you need to learn to swim. Therefore, in the context of allocating funding, we are passionate about addressing this missing piece of the strategy. We see the potential to allocate some of this grant aid to train people to become swimming teachers, in turn teaching more people to swim and benefit from what is an otherwise laudable initiative by government.
There is also the important issue of the UK’s ageing swimming pools, a stock of facilities that desperately requires significant investment. Far too many pools have closed in recent months and years. Part of the government’s ‘free swimming’ investment has been allocated to improving facilities but, based on the figures we have seen so far in terms of what local authorities have been offered, we cannot see how this money alone is going to make a big difference. This then leads to the issue of people being able to access a convenient local facility to take advantage of this initiative. I cannot speak for local authorities but from my conversations with colleagues in the public sector it seems that the current offers made by the government through this initiative fall short of their current income levels for swimming. If this income is removed from a swimming pool’s potential earning capacity they are going to be dependent on additional sources of grant aid or will have to redirect funding from other local budgets. As a result of this financial risk, we know that many questions are now being raised at a senior level.
So we know there has not been an appropriate level of consultation. We assume there has been consultation with Sport England and British Swimming but this focus is the competitive end of the sport. Our focus would have been an emphasis on getting people into swim programmes who could then access club structures. The other wider issue concerns how the government is planning to extend the free swimming initiative beyond England: will it include Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
I would most certainly applaud the government for trying to get people more active. It could have a profound impact on the obesity epidemic and our overall health and wellbeing. However, there needs to be an appreciation of the barriers to participation and an effort to reduce these barriers. We would like the tens of thousands who have not been taught to swim – not only young and old people but the population at large – to also benefit from this programme.
Roger Millward is chief executive of the Swimming Teachers’ Association. The STA can be found online at www.sta.co.uk
The Leisure Review, November 2008
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