Swimming Against the Current – More summers of drowning lie ahead unless things change

New Zealand will be doomed to repeat its tragic number of summer drowning victims if it doesn’t stop relying on whether children are taught to swim by chance and the zip code.

That’s the bleak assessment of the head of the area’s swimming organization, which, while helping thousands of Waikato children learn to swim, is now unable to reach thousands due to funding constraints – despite the group winning a top honor for their work.

Swimming Waikato CEO Darren Ward said last holiday season was the deadliest for drowning in 25 years, with it now being the leading cause of recreational death and the third leading cause of accidental death in New Zealand.

In 2021, 74 people drowned, 20 of them in December alone.

So far this year, 28 people have died in water accidents, with the Waikato River claiming two in the summer.

Ward said it was “hugely disappointing” and believes water safety education must be made compulsory in New Zealand schools or it would be too dangerous not to do so.

Darren Ward, CEO of Swimming Waikato.

MARK TAYLOR/Waikato Times

Darren Ward, CEO of Swimming Waikato.

“These kids are just unprepared in a lot of ways, we prepare these kids to fail every summer.

“I don’t think there is a coherent water security strategy…the Department of Education has specific guidelines for schools, but it’s quite unclear, there seems to be a lack of investment,” he said.

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Swimming Waikato has gone into low decile schools for the last year to provide water safety education for their Get Waikato Swimming program.

They have since been recognized with the Waikato Sport and Active Recreation Partnership Award for the initiative.

Currently 21 schools have signed up for their program which has delivered over 6400 one to one lessons with 130 teachers.

However, due to Covid 19, Ward said it severely impacted the number of schools using her classes and schools continued to call for help with swimmer education.

The average price for public swimming lessons in Waikato is $15 per child per lesson, with private school tuition being closer to $22, meaning access to quality aquatic education isn’t available to everyone, Ward said.

Ward wants the department to invest more in school swimming pool infrastructure and also to continue funding the agencies that provide water safety education.

“I think the availability and regularity of the classes in New Zealand or in Waikato just isn’t good enough,” he said.

“Our initiative… it is particularly aimed at those who do not have access to safe water or simply would not do so.

“So it’s a socio-economic problem.”

Tamahere Model Country School, Principal Waveney Parker

Kelly Hodel/Stuff

Tamahere Model Country School, Principal Waveney Parker

One school that has jumped at the opportunity to offer water safety education is Tamahere Model Country School on the outskirts of Hamilton City.

They held fundraisers with the community to ensure they could build a new school pool facility on their property.

Principal Waveney Parker said the financial hurdle of traveling to swimming pools and time constraints on teaching have meant some schools have struggled to provide quality access to swim education.

But she felt it was imperative that children learn to swim.

“I think it’s important… I think schools should teach swimming but it used to be funded… Schools used to have a swimming pool in every school and so teaching was part of the curriculum.

“We have a 25-meter pool and a learner pool that we built ourselves, and the difference in swimming ability at our school has improved tremendously…each child swims at least four times a week.

“But that has eased up and we don’t have school swimming pools in every school now and so it’s very difficult for a lot of schools… it’s not easy, it’s very difficult for some schools to teach swimming, admit children and others Venues is very expensive,” she said.

The Department of Education said swimming lessons and water safety are “an essential part” of New Zealand’s curriculum and that schools have a “required” opportunity to give all pupils the opportunity to learn basic water skills by the end of Year 6.

Pauline Cleaver, Associate Director (Hautū) Pathways and Progress, said schools receive an operating grant to fund pool maintenance or access to third-party pool facilities.

The pool infrastructure is funded from a component of the operational grant and the schools can use this for the operational maintenance of the pools.

“The Department expects schools to provide water safety and swimming lessons to meet the New Zealand curriculum.

“We estimate that around 1300 or 60 percent of schools choose to use their funding to maintain swimming pools on their own premises. The remaining 40 percent would therefore opt for instruction in municipal or private institutions.

“Schools have autonomy over how they allocate their operational grants, so the operational component of spending on pools is not captured by the department’s property management information system… School boards can choose to provide this opportunity by maintaining their own school pool or by You are using the funds to teach at a community facility,” Cleaver said.

Tamahere Model Country School principal Waveney Parker said it is imperative that children learn to swim.

Kelly Hodel/Stuff

Tamahere Model Country School principal Waveney Parker said it is imperative that children learn to swim.

Ward said there needs to be a collective, multi-stakeholder approach to providing water safety education and getting children to be safe in the water.

Swimming Waikato hopes to expand its work to raise awareness and stop drowning.

“It starts with education,” Ward said. “It starts at the earliest possible time … those kids can then go out with their friends over the summer when we’re not there, and hopefully by the end of the day those kids will come home.”

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Mike Hunter

Mike is the owner of the local pool shop. He's been in the business for over 20 years and knows everything there is to know about pools. He's always happy to help his customers with whatever they need, whether it's advice on pool maintenance or choosing the right chemicals. He's also a bit of a pool expert, and is always happy to share his knowledge with anyone who's interested.

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