Providing all children with vital skills through inclusive school swimming and water safety

Through Inclusion 2020, the Department for SEND Inclusion in PE, School Sport and Physical Activity grant, Katie Towner, Head of Learn to Swim at Swim England, discusses the importance of all children being provided with the opportunity to learn to swim and enjoy the water.

Through Inclusion 2020 the aim of the programme is to improve opportunities for pupils with SEND by extending the provision and training of high-quality school PE, school sport and physical activity and innovate new content and delivery approaches.

The programme has a key focus on delivering swimming and water safety lessons and is experimenting with dryside CPD for teachers, timetabling and delivery. 
Swimming lessons provide all children with vital skills to help with survival and this is no different for children with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND).  By 2025, over 780,000 children with SEND will be in the education system. However, inequalities in the ability of schools and teachers to offer high quality opportunities for them to participate in PE, School Sport or Physical Activity still exist, with disabled young people twice as likely to be physically inactive as non-disabled people. 
Against the backdrop of the current global pandemic, schools are currently also sharing their concerns around:
  • How pupils (including those with SEND) have now been out of the water for a significant amount of time
  • Risks around pool closures- The Community Leisure UK report highlighted how 1 in 5 pools will permanently close (August 2020) and ¼ of pools are still shut
  • Guidance issued on returning to the pool. Special schools have highlighted their concerns around pupils needing 1:1 support which is unable to take place due to teachers and teaching assistants now needing to teach dryside and observe social distancing rules
  • Transport- as and when pools are able to reopen, the challenges around social distancing for children journeying to pools for school swimming and accessing changing facilities is still a risk
However, through Inclusion 2020 schools are adapting and developing new approaches on supporting young people with school swimming and water safety, ensuring they can learn to swim and have positive experiences in early life. This is considered an important step in tackling drowning, given children with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) are at a greater risk of drowning (accidental drowning is the leading cause of death in children with ASC under the age of 14, accounting for 91% of childhood deaths in this population ). This is because of three common characteristics, wandering, fascination with the water and a lack of understanding of danger. Teaching children to swim can mean the difference between life and death if they find themselves accidentally in the water.
For young people, the pool can be a fun and relaxing environment. For those with SEND, the process of learning to swim helps with balance, coordination and the development of motor skills. As children learn to float and then move through the water, they can build muscle tone, strength, and coordinate different motions.  Additionally, they can develop better spatial awareness through exploring water depth. 
Through Inclusion 2020, eight Lead Inclusion Schools are working to understand the challenges and barriers facing young people with SEND to access swimming and innovate new approaches and solutions in partnership with local pools /Local Authorities. These schools are based across Milton Keynes, Dorset, Durham, London Kent, Northamptonshire and West Yorkshire. 
Each area has undertaken a local authority-wide audit of current swimming provision in light of Covid-19 and identified gaps in provision. Swim England has designed a new national assessment tool, which is an audit designed for local partners to undertake a review of inclusive swimming provision and identify actions to increase participation and impact. This provides opportunities for schools to review current provision for their pupils and work across their communities to support their pupils in accessing aquatic environments and the subsequent impact of enhancing their wellbeing and psychological health.
Swimming can play a central role in meeting the wellbeing and social health needs of the population
Through swimming, the pilot areas are sharing that young people are reporting:
  • A reduction in anxiety
  • A physical benefit due to their body relaxing and being supported in a weightless environment
  • Opportunity to socialise and make new friends
  • More of a feeling of a sense of place and families finding increased awareness of facilities in their community. 
Useful links:
  1.  Returning to the pool, guidance for school swimming
  2.  How to include learners with SEND in mainstream swimming lessons
  3.  Inclusion 2020 and School Swimming
  4. National Assessment Tool for schools  (free to download)
Inclusion 2020 is the umbrella term for an initiative that sits within the Department for Education SEND Inclusion in PE, School Sport and Physical Activity grant.  The consortium of organisations is led by the Youth Sport Trust and includes Activity Alliance, the British Paralympic Association, Nasen (National Association of special Educational Needs) and Swim England. For more information visit
Kate Towner, Head of Learn to Swim, Swim England
Published on 8 December 2020