Financial burden of swimming lessons ‘enormous’ but crucial for New Zealanders after summer of drowning horror
At more than $100 per term and long waiting lists, swimming lessons are a “huge” financial burden on families, said Water Safety chief executive Daniel Gerrard.
But a former Olympic swimming coach and swimming school owner says the price of life doesn’t even compare, while another swimming teacher says swimming lessons after school should only be to deepen skills, if the Department of Education’s swimming program was better managed.
“There will always be people who have limited discretionary funding. However, how do you put a price on a life? Said Auckland swimming school, SwimTastic, owner Mark Bone.
More than 30 people have died since the start of December, more than the total for all of last summer, and the worst number of drownings in more than 40 years.
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“At any time, no matter how old you are or how good you are at swimming, something can go wrong,” Bone said.
“What can help prevent a drowning is that people in these situations have completed water safety training and swimming lessons.”
According to Water Safety New Zealand, there are 20 million visits to public pools each year, 3.5 million people visit beaches, 4.5 million go boating, more than 1.1 million participate in swimming and more of 700,000 go fishing.
Mourners gather by the Manawatū River to remember 27-year-old Mu Mu and 11-year-old Blae Ler Paw, who both drowned there on December 29, 2021.
There are hundreds of swimming lesson companies across the country to cater to water habits, with major cities having a public swimming pool in almost every suburb.
Bone said her school has waiting lists for almost all of her classes, but that’s largely due to customers trying to book time slots right after school.
Swimming lessons vary between communal and private facilities.
In general, council lessons are less expensive and range from $15 to $18 per lesson, but are at a public pool.
At private facilities and swim schools, lessons range from $18 to $24 per lesson.
In Australia, learn-to-swim lessons were exempt from GST, with a focus on public spending in the sector to help give all children the opportunity to learn to swim, which Bone said New Zealand was to follow.
A 2017 University of Otago study involving eight schools in Dunedin found that two-thirds of children were unable to swim 100 metres.
Water Safety New Zealand’s National Swimming Skills Database showed in 2011 that only 29% of 12-year-olds could swim 200m, which is considered the gold standard for survival.
Earlier surveys found that a quarter of 10-year-olds couldn’t even float and half couldn’t swim 25m.
Water Safety chief executive Daniel Gerrard, who was “blown away” by the number of drownings this summer, said swimming schools were crucial for children.
“But these are businesses. They are created to be profitable entities, so the good ones will always have a waiting list,” he said.
“There is no doubt, the financial burdens on families are enormous.”
Todd Morton, owner of Wellington Easyswim swimming school and former Olympic swimming coach, said that if the school swimming programme, run by the Department for Education, was implemented consistently, lessons in Swimming after school should only be used to brush up on skills.
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“There will always be people who will never go to private lessons after school,” he said.
He must have been covered at school, better than he was now, he said.
The Department for Education’s assistant curriculum secretary, Ellen MacGregor-Reid, said swimming was part of the New Zealand curriculum and it was expected that all pupils would have the opportunity to learn skills basic aquatic skills by the end of grade 6.
“It highlights that parents, families and whānau also play an important role in keeping children and young people safe beyond school,” MacGregor-Reid said.
The ministry did not fully fund the school pools, but it did provide annual operating grants to run the school and deliver the program, which could be used either to run and maintain a school pool or to travel and enter a public swimming pool, she said.
But Morton said the program “is a bit high and low,” and he hasn’t seen consistent funding for it over an extended 10-year period.
“If we want to have an impact, at a minimum we need to increase the funding and quality of the schools swim program.
“Eight lessons isn’t even enough, period. That’s only four hours in the pool every year for kids who may not even be doing lessons after school.
But families were prioritizing other extracurricular activities, he said.
“For some people it’s definitely a matter of cost, but there’s an equal number of people who don’t swim because it’s a priority issue.
“But if you want to take it further and get real results, private sector and after-school classes are key,” Morton said.