Huge queues and backlogs as we strive to teach our kids to swim

Currently we have a generation of young people who won't be able to swim, says John Dolan in his weekly column
Huge queues and backlogs as we strive to teach our kids to swim

Swimming has many health benefits, but many Irish children may miss out on getting lessons because of a Covid backlog and staffing crisis, says John Dolan.

AS many parents know, there is a short enough optimum time in which to teach your child to swim.

By the time they are four or five, they are usually ready, and the next few years offer a window when they are like sponges (sorry) to tuition.

However, by the age of maybe nine or ten, that window can be shut: A child might be reluctant to learn with younger kids, be resistant to training methods, or be more body conscious.

Once that window passes, it can be difficult to get someone to learn the basics of swimming, and many in this situation will reach adulthood and old age without ever knowing the joy and mental and physical benefits of one of the most popular methods of exercise.

An estimated 20% of people fall into this category in Ireland.

The very real fear is that we currently have a generation of young children who will be joining them, because of the huge, pent-up demand for swimming lessons in the post-Covid era.

There is much talk these days about human rights, and I hope I am forgiven for the slight hyperbole when I suggest being taught to swim should be on that list.

Anyone who swims regularly and gains the benefits of it will know exactly what I mean. Oh, and of course, there is the not insignificant fact that being able to swim could save your life - and help you save other people’s lives too.

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As I have mentioned here a lot lately, the ripple effects of Ireland having one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world throughout the Covid pandemic will be felt for a long time - and perhaps eventually lead us to the conclusion that we went too far.

I personally wrote here in April about my son facing an eight-year wait for dental treatment in the HSE, partly as a result of the pandemic backlog.

Well, the current long queues and backlogs for swimming lessons are another case in point.

As children prepare to return to school next week, it is traditionally a time swimming lessons begin up and down the land, but this year, that is a far from straightforward proposition.

This week, I did a phone around of swimming pools across the city and county which offer lessons, on behalf of my six-year-old daughter, having heard some horror stories from other parents about queues stretching into next year - and possibly beyond.

Sure enough, I was shocked at the extent of the backlog.

One place told me the expected waiting time for a beginner was three years, another said they had a list 500 names long!

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of parents are hoping to take advantage of first-come, first-served policies, or waiting for a text to ping so they can beat the stampede to register their child. Many will inevitably miss out.

Some private leisure centres are only taking on children for lessons whose parents have a gym membership, which will be impossible for many cash-strapped families.

The sad truth is the window of opportunity to teach many of our children to swim will be gone.

This isn’t to point the finger of blame at hotels, leisure centres or municipal pools; the situation is clearly the result of a Covid backlog, while the staffing crisis may also be adding to the problem.

But that doesn’t mean solutions cannot be found, whether they come from private operators, councils or the Government.

This is an important issue.

Around one in ten people swim regularly, it’s the second-highest participation sport among adults in Ireland, while sea swimming has become hugely popular in recent years. Almost two million, or 40% of the population, live within 5km of the coast. That underlines both the attraction of swimming - and the need to ensure as many as possible are competent at it.

It’s one of the best methods of exercise for the whole body, it’s both relaxing and invigorating, and the mental benefits probably match the physical ones.

If we allow tens of thousands of children to slip through our fingers and become non-swimmers, we are denying them all of this, perhaps for the rest of their days.

Yes, a few swimming classes are on the curriculum of many primary schools, but that alone is rarely enough to teach a child to swim competently.

Blackrock Swimming Club highlighted this issue in April and launched a Learn2Swim programme on Saturdays, with support from Cork City Council.

A club spokesperson said pool closures during the pandemic had a “massive impact”, adding: “There are legitimate fears such a long break will result in swimming-related accidents in the years to come, as a cohort of children will not have had access to swimming lessons in their community. It is so important to get children into the water when they are younger, as they become more reluctant as they get older to participate in lessons. It is a vital life skill, not to mention one of the best forms of exercise for adults and children.”

Roger Sweeney, acting chief executive of Water Safety Ireland, has called on private hotels and leisure centres to “give back to their local communities” by providing swimming lessons at discounted rates to schoolchildren.

A recent nationwide survey of leisure centres, public pools and private swimming instructors nationwide found three-quarters were fully booked, the remainder had only a very limited number of spaces open to children.

The authorities are aware of the issue.

A Cork City Council spokesperson said: “Whilst having the same challenges as the rest of the industry, we have been able to offer swimming lessons at both Leisureworld facilities at Bishopstown and at Churchfield since last September/October.

“It will, however, take a few years before the backlog caused over a two-year period can be eliminated. Capacity is key - there are a limited number of hours usually between 3pm and 6pm Monday to Friday and weekends to give lessons, coupled with a reduction in teachers.”

Regarding the staffing issue, it said: “We have not yet reached pre- Covid staffing levels, but are making progress each month with regular recruitment drives. In addition, at our Bishopstown facility, each month from September, we are running courses for those who may be interested in giving swimming lessons, which should have a further positive impact.”

A Cork County Council spokesperson said: “We directly manage and operate pools in Mallow, Fermoy and Dunmanway. In each case, the council has adjusted its lessons programme having regard for demand and the availability of staff resources.

“The restrictions necessitated by the pandemic resulted in a backlog of demand for swimming lessons. These have since been cleared and the council has been working towards a resumption of a new lessons programme.

“In Mallow, for example, the summer programme has been very busy, while in Dunmanway staffing shortages have impacted the programme. These recruitment challenges are currently being addressed

A Department of Sport spokesperson said it was developing the first National Swimming Strategy based on a vision to “provide everyone in Ireland with an opportunity to swim”. The Working Group tasked with this comprises representatives from Swim Ireland, Sport Ireland, CARA, Ireland Active, and local authorities.

“Further supports to increase the deployment of portable pools to address capacity issues will be considered in the context of that strategy,” the spokesperson said.

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