Most of us remember swimming in the school pool, with the smell of chlorine and the sound of shrieking and splashing children.
We might have even been lucky enough to rent a ‘pool key’ over the summer, with trips to school helping to fill the seemingly endless hot days.
But what was once largely a norm in public schools is now being phased out, with dire consequences, says a sector body.
Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) works to find funding strategies to tackle our nation’s drowning problem, which is one of the worst in the OECD. In 2016 there were 78 preventable fatalities and drowning-related hospitalisations were on the rise.
WSNZ recently commissioned a study into aquatic education in schools and found that only around a quarter of primary schools provided a minimum acceptable level.
Acknowledging the problem is complex due to New Zealand’s diverse and growing population and expansive network of unpatrolled waterways, WSNZ CEO Jonty Mills draws a direct connection between pools in schools and our nation’s diminishing water skills.
“Around 156 school pools have closed in the last six years and a further 130 nationwide are at risk of being shut down permanently,” says Mills.
“Having a school pool is like having a classroom specifically for aquatic education. Ease of access means children get to learn water safety skills in a supportive environment. When school pools close, students then have to travel to community facilities and the cost and time required can be prohibitive,” he explains.
“We have certainly seen a drop in the amount of aquatic education offered at school and the closure of school pools has certainly had an impact.”
It’s all about the money
Ultimately, it comes down to cost, says Mills.
“The costs associated with the upkeep and maintenance of school pools can be high and schools under financial pressure often simply cannot afford to keep them going. When pools get old and run down, the cost of bringing them back up to standard is often unaffordable without financial assistance.”
The New Zealand Curriculum specifically acknowledges the importance of water skills, stating that all school students must be given the opportunity to learn essential swimming skills by the end of year 6.
Rob Giller, acting head of the Ministry of Education’s Infrastructure Service, says all schools receive funding for aquatic education as part of their annual property maintenance grant, but swimming lessons are not specifically funded.
“Schools have discretion to meet this requirement in whichever way works for them, whether that be at their own school pool, a neighbouring school pool, or community facilities,” he says.
“We do not fund swimming lessons directly. Nor do we fund the capital cost of new or replacement swimming pools at schools. However, we do provide ongoing maintenance funding for pools as part of their annual property maintenance grant (PMG). Schools may also use their Ministry-provided capital works budgets for the upkeep of the pool’s essential infrastructure.”
Pool maintenance is no small job. The Ministry of Education’s website outlines the costs as including pool chemicals, water, heating, painting, fencing and testing charges, a caretaker’s training and salary, cover repairs, and caring for ancillary buildings such as changing rooms and storage sheds.
Instead of using an on-site pool, a number of schools are using facilities in the community to teach swimming, says Giller.
“Schools without a pool can use their operations grant to help take students to a nearby swimming pool. In this context schools are responsible for delivering the curriculum and decide how their funding is spent.
“In addition, many schools may use other sources of funding, such as community funding, towards the upkeep and running costs of their pools,” he says.
Meanwhile, WSNZ offers a range of support to schools and whānau, such as corporate partnerships to help deliver its Water Skills for Life programme to primary-aged students, and practical help with pool maintenance.
The organisation also runs a campaign called Save Our School Pools, offering support to schools applying for funding to maintain their pool.