Lockdown means 12,000 fewer children leave primary school able to swim

North Koreans swim in a pool in the Munsu Water Park on a national holiday as part of celebrations of the 'Day of the Sun',
North Koreans swim in a pool in the Munsu Water Park on a national holiday as part of celebrations of the 'Day of the Sun',

The impact of lockdown on swimming is laid bare in a report that shows 12,000 fewer children can swim at least 25 metres when they leave primary school than before the Covid pandemic.

It means that only 71 per cent of children aged 11 and 12 now meet national guidelines of being able to swim “competently, confidently and proficiently” over at least one length in a standard pool by the time they begin secondary school.

The drop in children’s swimming, which has partially recovered in the youngest school age groups since Covid restrictions were lifted, was revealed in Thursday’s annual Active Lives study of children and young people by Sport England.

Schools and swimming pools were closed in March 2020, forcing the cancellation of statutory Year Six swimming lessons, but more than a third of state primary schools even in 2022-23 were unable to offer more than 10 lessons across the academic year. Some could provide no swimming lessons.

That is a stark 8.2 per cent rise since 2017-18, contributing to an overall drop of 6.3 per cent in the percentage of Year Seven children with the crucial life-saving skill.

For children in Years One and Two, the number who can swim at least one length has also dropped more than 10 per cent on pre-lockdown figures from a high of 35 per cent in 2018-19 to 22 per cent in the academic year 2022-23.

Some swimming pools were forced to close permanently during Covid and the sector’s wider recovery has since been majorly affected by the spike in energy bills. Community Leisure UK, the industry body that represents operators, warned this year that half of the UK’s community swimming pools face closure. “If there aren’t the places to teach these life-improving – lifesaving – skills they will be lost for a generation,” Olympic swimming gold medallist Duncan Goodhew said.

More positively, the Sport England data does show signs of wider increases in activity levels, even if just over half of children still do not meet the chief medical officer’s recommendations of a daily average of at least 60 minutes activity.

The survey, which relates to the academic year that immediately followed England women’s victory in the European football championships, shows that 176,000 more girls are playing the game compared to five years ago.

The proportion of children and young people walking, cycling or scootering to get to places, which is deemed as ‘active travel’, has also soared, with a one million increase compared to five years ago.

“While today’s figures reveal some positives and is further evidence of our sector’s ability to recover from the pandemic, they also underline how much more work there is to do to get our children and young people active,” Tim Hollingsworth, the chief executive of Sport England, said.

“Too many children and young people are missing out on the benefits of living an active life – to their physical health but also mental well-being and positive social connection with friends and their community.”

Of the active travel increases, commissioner Chris Boardman, who is also the chairman of Sport England, said: “It’s working. They [the children and young people] are showing us how we can achieve government’s goal, to get 3.5 million more people active by 2030. This is the next generation, building a green transport future and embedding health into their everyday lives.”