In over our heads: NZ water safety education inadequate

By   /   February 4, 2014  /   3 Comments

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The first time I nearly drowned, it was in a large spa pool, at a BBQ, in the 1980s. Nobody saw me trip and fall in as I played around the edges. Drowning is silent. Nobody heard. But a friend of my parents noticed a child’s figure floating at the bottom, and pulled me out.


When you drown in a pool as a child, it feels oddly beautiful at first.

The sudden muting of the world. The rushing, bubbling sound all around you. The unreal weightlessness. Your hair streaming past your face.

You feel like you’re falling forever. Then the bottom of the pool bumps softly under your back, and you stare at the glassy, mirror-like surface above you. There is pressure on your face. Somehow you don’t breathe in yet. But an urgency uncoils in your chest. The need to breathe starts to surge up and down your throat like a wild animal. Your arms and legs go slowly. You gaze up, eyes blurry. You can see people standing around in the dry world you plunged here from, their figures jerking and flashing through the water’s uneven surface. You open your mouth. Water fills it, cold against your warm tongue and gums.

And then, if you are lucky, there is a splash. Bubbles shoot towards you; big pale hands firmly grab your arms. You are dragged through the mute pool, head floating, and yanked with a sudden eruption of water into the air. It is loud, cold, brash and bright. You are streaming wet. Someone is crying. You are handed to your mother. You are clinging to her and wetting her clothes. You look around and cough; rub your eyes. What just happened? Gave us a helluva fright, people keep saying; they push your wet hair away from your face, kiss your head.

The first time I nearly drowned, it was in a large spa pool, at a BBQ, in the 1980s. Nobody saw me trip and fall in as I played around the edges. Drowning is silent. Nobody heard. But a friend of my parents noticed a child’s figure floating at the bottom, and pulled me out.

I was very, very lucky.

I was lucky a couple of years earlier, too. My mother held my hand and my sister’s as we played in the sea. It was a blue sky day. The water was warm. We were only paddling in the shallows, but as some of us know, the waves in New Zealand are unpredictable. My mother didn’t realise how strong they could get. With no warning, one of them reared up, dumped over my head and dragged at me. My mother staggered around in the suddenly much-deeper water, trying to keep her grip on my hand and pull me up. But the next wave dragged my sister down, too. My mother struggled to stay on her feet as were rolled around in surf that was just about sucking us out to sea. She remembers it seeming like it went on and on. For a long, helpless moment, she thought she would have to choose which of our hands to release.

She eventually managed to drag us both out backwards, but never forgot her horror.

For centuries, people have fished, swum, gathered shellfish and food, and sailed here. We have more than 11,000 km of magnificent coastline: the very idea of NZ children not learning how to survive around water seems not just limiting but gravely irresponsible.

Yet every year, an unacceptable number of people drown. Clearly, in Aotearoa, you must swim, or you may drown. It’s as simple as that.

Drowning is not a new phenomenon. New Zealand has always had a bad record for water-related deaths. The annual drowning toll hit a horrible high of 214 in 1985; the highest since we began to keep statistics on it. Last year, the drowning fatality statistics were the lowest ever: just 81.

Put another way, 81 families lost their lovely somebody to water in 2013.

In the last two decades, only traffic accidents and falls have caused more accidental deaths in New Zealand than drowning. And while it’s an intrinsically difficult statistic to assess, for every fatal drowning, there are about eight estimated near-fatal misses. The popularity of the water does not look set to wane, either; one study had over half of the 15 year old respondents citing swimming as their preferred form of exercise. And as our population grows, the numbers of people in the water will, too.

Handing a flyer out to “Asians” as they get off the plane (presumably this flyer will be written in Asian?) will do nothing to help.

What will help is mass education across the board.

Men (like Sonny Fai) and preschoolers (like 1980s me, nearly) are a real risk, according to Dr Kevin Moran when I interviewed him for a study I was doing on water safety a couple of years ago, in his office at the University of Auckland.

But New Zealanders are at risk in general, actually. Our drowning statistics when compared to our closest neighbour’s put us to shame. Despite New Zealand and Australia’s populations both living mostly coastally, on a per-capita basis, twice as many drown here as do across the ditch in Australia, says Moran. And the reason seems almost offensively financial:

From an education point of view, you’ve got to understand that Australia puts in a huge investment into water safety and swimming… the government doesn’t pay anything for water safety in New Zealand. There’s no funding.”

Why is there such a huge difference in public investment into water safety between the two countries, then? And why is the wetter country the one providing less state-funded water education? It’s a question Matt Coleridge from Water Safety New Zealand would like the answer to, too.

It may come as a surprise to those of us who learned to swim in school pools that swimming and water safety are not compulsory in the New Zealand curriculum. These days, it’s just called “aquatics” and technically covers anything to do with water: “Even just looking at water [counts as aquatics],” says Coleridge. “There’s no definite rule that schools have to teach kids to swim at the moment, even though learning to swim and learning about water safety should be taught in all schools.”

But isn’t it already? And if not, why not?

Of course, schools already have a full and rich curriculum to work with. Some say they just cannot fit more into their already-packed schedules. Parents say the same: they’re busy with sports and family and work.

It’s not like the need isn’t clear. In addition to our awful drowning stats, about 20 children are taken every year to hospital in Auckland in critical condition after near-drowning incidents.

Furthermore, despite close to 98% of students surveyed having taken part in outdoor aquatic activity in the last year, one benchmark for survival in the water is the ability to swim 200m, and fewer than 20% of 10-year-olds can do it.

Why can’t they? It seems inconceivable that parents aren’t teaching their kids such basic skills.

The effectiveness of family input into water safety knowledge is largely unknown. But students’ ability to be actively educated by their parents is not necessarily strong; Moran cited a study which found that adolescents spend only half as much time with their parents as they do with friends. Relationships between parents and adolescent children are frequently difficult anyway; even parents who are willing and able to educate their children have no guarantee that their advice will be heeded. (Lots of 14 and 15 year olds are defiant little rapscallions, you have to admit.)

Besides, parents are often just as unfamiliar with hazardous New Zealand waters and water safety; many children would clearly be very disadvantaged if they were forced to rely solely on their parents to provide them with a reliable water safety education. And adult supervision isn’t necessarily any help: fewer than 50% of adults have had any lifesaving training, and well under 40% have had training in CPR. In addition to this, well over a quarter of students considered in a 2006 study said that they “sometimes” or “often” swam unsupervised. The same study also showed that around 40% of students swam outside patrol areas on patrolled beaches “often.”

Clearly, we cannot simply rely on children and young adults being adequately supervised by parents or officials.

But with the lives of their children at stake, surely parents have more than enough incentive to provide lessons? After all, swimming lessons are available at private or community pools for the vast majority of people in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, formal lessons are hugely expensive, particularly if there are two or three or more kids, and as it takes three to four years to really learn enough about swimming and the water, the cost adds up to approximately ee-normous.

On the other hand, it is likely that it simply doesn’t occur to some parents to teach kids to swim. Ask any teacher: many primary-age children have never even been to the beach. It actually shocked me when I began teaching! Furthermore, anecdotal evidence from teachers suggests some parents, particularly from certain Asian and Pacific communities, consider swimming lessons a waste of time; school is for more academic pursuits, and anyway, they don’t go to the beach, so what’s the point? Studies show, too, that Asian students (including NZ-born and NZ residents), new migrants (from all countries), and students from low decile schools are particularly likely to have had little experience with water. But when they do eventually go to the beach – and this being New Zealand, they are more than likely to go – without enough knowledge being passed down from either parents or schools, how will people be able to survive the well-documented hazards of the water? Those whose parents were disinterested are obviously at a huge disadvantage. And it clearly isn’t simple migrant or visitor status that drowns people.

It makes sense, then, to turn to schools to provide the information so desperately needed to keep New Zealand children treading water.

But school pools are rapidly being filled in and closing down across New Zealand; 80 per year are disappearing. They are getting too old: most were built in the years immediately following WWII. As pools age and school budgets get tighter, the maintenance costs, together with the costs of OSH requirements, creep up until use of any pool – whether the school pool or the local community pool – becomes impossible, says Moran:

“The whole thing just becomes too difficult. And that’s when they say, “Well, it is costly, but we might as well just bus the kids down to the local municipal pool.” And that’s fine, it usually works well for one or two years. And then they say, “Well, hang on, guys, it’s costing us $800 every time we hire the bus!” And they need new computers! So what’s the first thing that goes?”

So even the efforts of schools who wish to circumvent the difficulties posed by inadequate resources are often stymied.

However, there is almost no evidence that suggests swimming lessons alone will prevent drowning. Evidence actually suggests that ability to swim can lead to overconfidence and increased risk-taking (such as swimming in hazardous areas).

Mass water safety education, rather than learning to swim, is key. Obviously it is very efficient to provide mass education via schools.

But few teachers attend professional development courses on the teaching of swimming and water safety. Lower decile schools use their own staff members almost exclusively, while many high decile schools bring in external providers to teach aquatics education. However, almost half of schools have zero staff members with any specialist swimming or water safety qualifications. Even so, if there were a qualified staff member in a school, it is doubtful that a single teacher could be expected to assume responsibility for teaching an entire school’s student population to swim.

But Matt Coleridge from Water Safety NZ says swimming is merely a subset of water safety, and teachers often don’t even have get wet.

“With water safety, we’re not interested in the breadth of stroke, nice high elbows, that sort of thing. We want people to be able to survive. Moving and floating. Knowing how to behave around water, knowing about different types of water. You don’t even have to be in the water to teach a lot of it.”

So how much do schools’ finances currently enter the debate? Bloody heaps.

It is not that schools and parents don’t want to teach water safety. It is that they need more assistance – financial and professional – to be able to be really effective.

If only it were as easy as handing out a glib, condescending flyer, Gillespie-style, to visitors and migrants telling them the beach hates them.

Actually, the beach doesn’t hate them. The beach doesn’t give a fuck about anyone.

81 water deaths in 2013 is 81 too many. Water safety education needs to begin in the bath and continue for life: at home, at school, and in the community. Whether we are “Asian” (like the humans being mocked by stubborn radio personalities on Twitter), Samoan, like Sonny Fai, or Pakeha, like me and my immediate family, increased water safety education is imperative.

Coincidentally, on the weekend, my 6 year old Pakeha niece nearly drowned in a pool.

Perhaps it felt oddly beautiful at first: the sudden muting of the world; the rushing, bubbling sound all around her; the unreal weightlessness. Her hair streaming past her face. Maybe she felt like she was falling forever. The bottom of the pool bumped softly under her back, and she stared at the glassy, mirror-like surface above her, perhaps. Somehow she didn’t breathe in straight away. But an urgency uncoiled in her chest; I bet the need to breathe started to surge up and down her throat like a wild animal. Her arms and legs went slowly. She might have stared up at the water. I wonder if she saw people standing around in the dry world she plunged in from, their figures jerking and flashing through the water’s uneven surface. Water filled her mouth then, maybe, cold against her warm tongue and gums.

And then, she was lucky. I wasn’t there, but probably there was a splash; bubbles shot towards her; big pale hands firmly grabbed her. She would have been dragged through the mute pool, head floating, and yanked with a sudden eruption of water into the air: loud, cold, brash and bright. She was streaming wet. She clung to her father. She looked around and coughed. Rubbed her eyes. What just happened?

Gave us a helluva fright.

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  1. Alex says:

    Very interesting and scary! I can only speak from experience – our swimming class is extremely expensive, at $180 per TERM! And thankfully, I can afford that at the moment. When my daughter (8) started these classes, the swimming school informed me that they have to un-do most of the swimming techniques they have been taught at school! They said the water safety taught at school is so basic and taught by teachers who have just attended a one day swimming safety course, that its more unhelpful than helpful. The main thing taught in most schools, or at least the first thing taught, is blowing bubbles in the water. Teaching kids to blow bubbles is the opposite of what they need to be taught. Kids need to be taught to hold onto their air in their lungs as this is what keeps them afloat in the water. They blow bubbles then they have no air, then they sink, then they have to breath in because their lungs are empty. Or you hold your breath while you go under the water. Much more sensible! When they start actually swimming along like a little fish, then they can blow bubbles because they are able to then, come up AND take a NEW breath of air. I was so surprised that even, I, who considers myself quite a sensible thinker, didn’t think of that! And it makes so much sense. A simple thing really, but possibly in school swimming “Aquatics” we are teaching children HOW to drown, not how to stay alive …. bit scary to think isn’t it?

    • Naomi says:

      This is an interesting point and one I also learnt relatively recently. My preschool son’s swimming school recently changed approach so that they teach children to hold their breath rather than blow bubbles.
      Also I remember swimming lessons in primary school – getting in trouble because I would swim free-style with me arms straight (because I had been taught privately and presumably knew how to swim better than the teacher).

  2. Stacie Newport says:

    Great article. My son is 16 and doesn’t know how to swim. I too don’t know how, so I couldn’t teach him. Swimming lessons, as the previous commenter and your article say, are expensive. As a solo mum struggling just to feed the kids, it’s an essential expense that is still miles down the list. My sons primary school had ‘swimming lessons’, but I don’t really class them as such. The teachers focused on the kids who could swim, so they would do well in the interschool swimming sports. Those who couldn’t were often just allowed a few minutes free play in the pool at the end of the lesson. Schools that do swimming lessons need to actually be teaching swimming and water safety, like they used to. And the cost of swimming lessons at public pools needs to be reduced or subsidised for those who can’t afford it. As well as more on safety around the water and less on being able to do a good freestyle stroke. I actually feel my son is safer than his friends because he knows his limits, whereas his friends get cocky about their abilities.

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