Berhampore Pool, Wellington. Photo: Little Makos Swim School (facebook.com/Littlemakos)

Taking a dive: The life-threatening crisis in New Zealand kids’ swimming

With school swimming pools continuing to close across the country, it’s never been more difficult for a New Zealand child to learn to swim. 

Today many families will stand at the school gates and send their little ones off to school, some for the first time. That mixture of fear, pride, and excitement mixed with anxiety is a feeling familiar to so many parents. We almost take it for granted.

In that moment we know we will do anything to keep our children safe. And yet there’s only so much we can do. And what we can do depends a lot on factors outside of our control.

Nobody knows that better than the families who have lost children to accidents. This year time last year three children under five had already drowned. In December, there were four drowning deaths in just three days. On Christmas Eve a little boy described by his family as “loved and treasured” died in hospital after drowning in his backyard.

Last year there was a total of 72 preventable drowning deaths in New Zealand. Already there have been eight deaths this year. How many more will there be?

I grew up by the beach in Australia and learning to swim just happened. We went to surf lifesaving every Sunday whether we wanted to or not. At school we were all marched down to the beach for PE. When I moved to New Zealand I went to a private school with a pool for a year. I then went to a public school for the next two years with no pool.

I was surprised by how little confidence or sense many of my peers from public school had in the water. At the private school I attended through a scholarship everyone was a swimmer. They were competitive and competent. These were the perks of 24-7 access to an Olympic-sized pool.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out this is an access issue. Former Olympic and national swimming coach Mark Bone now runs the Swimtastic swimming school in Auckland’s eastern suburbs. He says whether a pool stays open or not seems to be increasingly dependent on the decile of the school involved.

“It is a sad indictment of our education system that swimming is not currently compulsory within the school curriculum,” he says. “My concern is that we are reaching a point where access to swimming lessons is driven by the decile level of the school, leaving thousands of our children without the resources to develop a fundamental life skill.”

Former Olympic and national swimming coach Mark Bone at the Henderson High School swimming pool, Auckland. (Photo: supplied)

It will surprise nobody that having money means you have access to facilities that others don’t. Running a school pool is expensive. Estimates suggest around 300 pools around the country have either closed in the past five years or are currently facing closure.

The debate about whose job it is to teach kids to swim is moot given how many of our families live on the poverty line. I was lucky enough that my dad was a surfer so he taught me how to swim.

My husband and I paid for three terms of swimming lessons at $140 each term, then could no longer afford them. But we are lucky enough that our local council pool provides free entry to under-fives and costs just a few dollars for over fives, so we swim there every week. Both of our children, aged five and seven, are now confident swimmers.

But if you live rurally what chance do you have without a school pool? The cost of the pool isn’t the only barrier to access – there’s the cost of togs, towels, petrol to get to the pool. It’s a head-in-the-sand ridiculous argument to just suggest parents must teach their kids to swim. Also, what if a parent can’t swim? Many adults can’t and adult swimming lessons are often even more out of reach than swimming lessons for kids.

Henderson High School recently saved their pool with a grant from The Trusts West Auckland. If the pool had closed, more than 1000 children would have been without access to a pool for lessons and water confidence classes. Newtown School was able to save their pool in 2018 after a $500,000 grant from Wellington City Council but it is sadly now under repair again.

Henderson High School’s swimming pool was saved thanks to a grant from The Trusts West Auckland. (Photo: supplied)

But an innovative partnership model might help change the system if government funding continues to be elusive. Around 12 years ago, Berhampore School partnered with Little Makos Swim School and Harbour City Water Polo Club to repair the school’s pool. Together, they fundraised for two years to upgrade a pool that had not been used in eight years after falling into disrepair.

Today, five schools use the pool – around 1200 a year students a year. It’s an inspirational story, and may serve as a good model to save other school pools.

Sarah Chambers, the founder of Little Makos Swim School, launched the initiative when she was coaching at the polo club. “I was talking to the other coaches and director and there were just so few good swimmers coming through.”

Kilbirnie council pool lessons were at capacity, a problem that still exists today. “There was this whole generation of kids who couldn’t access lessons, even if they had money. We were watching these swimming and water confidence skills rapidly deteriorating every year.”

Sarah and her three siblings all attended Berhampore School, back when its pool was first operational. Her mother worked at the decile two school, and her father volunteered his time keeping the pool going. When he was no longer able to keep volunteering, nobody else was able to step up to do the work.

Years later, the answer was found in a community partnership. “Part of the problem schools face is they cannot afford to run pools. We [Little Makos Swim School] pick up the tab for everything, even toilet paper; we clean facilities and pay for the pool. The school was really supportive but they could not assist in any way financially.”

The initiative is now a huge success, with schools all around South Wellington and beyond able to use the pool while minimising huge transport costs. Berhampore School has saved up to $5,000 a year now that they don’t have to transport children to Kilbirnie for lessons. Every day at lunchtime Little Makos provides a lifeguard. For the first time in years, the children have access to recreational swimming every year.

But it’s not just the children who benefit. Every Sunday all year, the pool offers community swimming for free.

“It’s a community asset so we have always believed the community needs to have access. Our changing rooms are white and the walls have only been tagged once in 11 years because the community feel it’s theirs they feel ownership over it, they protect their pool and they love it.”

Most partnerships to keep school pools open rely on businesses to pay rent to a school, and then the school still covers all pool costs. It’s a model that’s hard to make work in 2020. They pay rent to the school – and then the school has to do everything.

Sarah believes community-led and backed projects are the only way to save school pools.

“There has to be a willingness to do this. There are so many working families these days,  people just don’t have the time to do the volunteer work they used to do cleaning the pool. Schools have very little support because the manpower just isn’t there to have someone to put the pool to bed each night. On top of everything else a school has to offer these days, keeping a pool is kind of superfluous thing.”

Sarah is sure that pools will sadly continue to close. And more children will miss out.

“Without community partnership that trend is going to continue.”


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