Why teaching young people to swim should not just be a tick in a box

Posted 29th January 2016

Julie Simonelli has always loved school sport. However, it was swimming that caught her attention most of all and, after her parents helped raise the funds for a pool to be installed at her local Goldsworth Primary School, she never looked back. Since starting her own swim school in 2002, where she still works alongside her three daughters, she has seen her reputation skyrocket. Having started with just 35 children she now welcomes more than 400 students per week, including adults, who attend as a way to keep fit and maintain a healthy lifestyle. In this article, she discusses her thoughts on how best swimming should be incorporated into the school curriculum, how to engage disabled and disadvantaged young people, and her array of experiences from more than two decades of teaching.

Sport had a massive impact on me at school and has everything to do with where I am today. I learned to swim at the age of eight and I was hooked almost immediately. I swam competitively for Woking and later Guildford City before following my mum into teaching. It’s an integral part of our family, and since my daughters and I started running holiday courses at Goldsworth School – the school which my parents helped so much – it has really completed the circle, so to speak.

Standards for swimming, as well as school sport in general, are much higher than they were in ‘my day’. If you consider the hours I was training and the time I spent swimming at events at age 14, I wouldn’t even figure these days as a 10-year-old at the top clubs. The quality of teaching has definitely improved over the years and that’s played a big part in helping produce the standard of athletes we see today.

I used to be very involved in school swimming. Despite it being part of the National Curriculum not all schools provided it and, in many places, it felt like there wasn’t a great attitude towards it. To be fair, teachers are under so much pressure in the classroom already, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to take your class for a swimming lesson. Regardless of how important it is, it doesn’t have an impact on results and league tables, so I can understand why many view it as low priority.

However, you cannot underestimate the difference a positive learning experience in a fun environment can make. In my opinion, there should be a higher priority placed upon all school sport – through programmes such as the School Games – with all primary schools having specialist PE teachers. Money should also be put aside for swimming. Ideally, schools would build their own pools and run them in partnership with local swim schools and local authorities to subsidise the cost.

While I can understand and appreciate the difficulties behind incorporating swimming into the school curriculum – the cost of the lessons, coaching, travel to a local leisure centre or maintaining an onsite pool etc – I simply cannot undersell how important a skill I believe it to be for all young people. It’s the only sport which could literally save their life one day, while it’s also the gateway to so many other water sports and activities.

It’s a great all round exercise; It’s non-weight bearing so those with joint problems can safely take part, while for disabled youngsters it often represents a freedom of movement and relaxation that they can’t get anywhere else. There is increasing evidence these days that learning to swim from a young age aids motor development and coordination and we see these benefits in our youngsters. It can also help with confidence, self esteem and just generally having fun!

We regularly integrate children with autism into our lessons. It’s all about meeting individual needs within a group setting. Our groups have a maximum of six children and beginner groups also have extra helpers in the pool. We’ve had children with Down’s syndrome and dyspraxia swim with us in the past and we current have two deaf sisters as well. We are signed up to the National Deaf Children’s Society pledge to provide deaf awareness and I’ve learnt a few basic signs. The 2012 Paralympics provided us with so many role models and truly exemplified what disabled people are capable of and it’s important to give them a platform where they can thrive.

I am very proud of what we offer and of my amazing team of teachers, who work for me in addition to other full time jobs or study are all extremely dedicated and hardworking. I enjoy helping and watching teachers grow and sharing my knowledge with other people. It’s very rewarding. There are always challenges. We have to keep adapting, keep learning and keep moving forward. We need to stay relevant and up to date with a changing world. Moving forwards I want to continue improving the quality of lessons we offer. We also do lots of charity events – which included raising £1,500 for Sport Relief in 2014, and we are determined to keep giving back. We’ll also be stepping up our water safety, first aid and resuscitation lessons during the summer holidays and looking to develop a platform for training the next generation of teachers.

You can find out more about Julie’s Swim School via her website: www.juliesswimschool.com. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Make sure to look out for her upcoming blog: “When can my child stop swimming lessons,” which will be available through each of these platforms soon.

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