A few years ago the new Irish primary school physical education curriculum listed an aquatics strand as key to helping decrease rising child obesity rates. However, how many Irish primary schools have access to a swimming pool?

Left High and Dry At The Pool
Originally published in The Irish Times

Access to swimming pools is low on the list of priorities for some schools: 80 per cent of them in the west and Co Donegal don’t have the use of even a PE hall, according to the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, writes Stephen Cummins

“PE facilities in primary schools, especially in rural areas, are desperately insufficient,” says Austin Corcoran, the union’s president. “I’m looking out of the window now and it’s going to lash rain. If this was 11 o’clock on a Monday and I had PE scheduled, there is no PE unless I have a PE hall. It’s as simple as that. A PE hall of some description should be part of every school in the country. That would be a basic minimum requirement. If that were achieved then I think you could get a viable PE programme going, in the sense that you could put it in the roster for 11 o’clock on Wednesday and know you could do something of a physical nature, rain or no rain.”

Schools such as St Joseph’s primary in Terenure, Dublin, would agree. It, too, has other priorities.
“We don’t even have proper yard space. I mean, it’s a disgrace,” says its principal, Matt Hume. “I’d drive through Northern Ireland quite regularly, and the facilities the schools have up there put us to shame. They have beautiful grounds with well-laid, smooth surfaces and plenty of yard space, as well as indoor facilities.”

Does his school have access to a PE hall or gym? “Absolutely not,” he says.
The new Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney, would love if all young people were like David Ryan. As concerns about obesity heighten, the 11-year-old Dubliner is a shining example of the kind of child who could save the health services a fortune: he spends much of his free time exercising, whether through football, rugby or swimming.

As the nights draw in, and David’s hours on a football or rugby pitch are restricted for the winter, he should be getting plenty of opportunities to develop in the pool. But Government cuts and a lack of investment in facilities have put paid to his ambitions.

This summer the pool David used, at Dundrum Family Recreation Centre, or DFRC, in south Dublin, was closed after a grant to redevelop the dilapitated 34-year-old facility fell through. Used by residents from as far afield as Tallaght, the pool served schools, special-needs centres and retirement homes in the area, as well as an expanding local population. It was where David, who lives in Ballinteer, began his swimming lessons and developed an interest in the sport.

“They were the best lessons he had,” says David’s stepfather, Aengus Kirwan, who is involved in Splash, a group campaigning for the redevelopment of the pool. “The teachers at the DFRC were great with him, setting him goals. He loved going down and did intensive courses there. We used to go down early at the weekends, the whole family. Then one Sunday afternoon we arrived down and the place was locked up.”

The closure incensed Kirwan, who has had little success finding an alternative facility where David can complete his lessons. “I’ve tried all the pools that are reasonably nearby,” he says wearily. “Glenalbyn pool, in Stillorgan, is packed to capacity. They’re taking kids from Bray, I hear. Terenure College is closed because of a leakage. Lessons in Blue Pool in Monkstown are full. Templeogue has only one or two places, but they’re for advanced swimmers. I’ve joined a fitness club with a pool, but it would cost somewhere in the region of €900 for both David and myself. I can’t afford that.

“Even if I could, there was a guy at our campaign meeting who said he tried to get his kid into lessons in such a club and was told that his young lad could join but that there was a year-long waiting list for lessons, and only members could get on the waiting list. So it would be useless anyway. It’s a crazy situation.”

Parents throughout the country will doubtless share Kirwan’s frustration, especially when the new physical- education curriculum is introduced to primary schools, in two years’ time. With the addition of an aquatics strand, it aims for children to gain “competence and confidence near, in, under and on water”. According to the Department of Education and Science, primary children will be taught a variety of strokes, as well as being given “opportunities for enjoyment of water play and other aspects of aquatics”. Water safety will be “stressed throughout”.

On paper it seems like a comprehensive programme. Children will enjoy splashing about in the water while simultaneously exercising and learning a vital lesson in safety. But lack of access to pools will mean that, for a lot of schools, the ambitious programme simply won’t become a reality. As Deirdre Cronin, a teacher at St Brigid’s National School, in the Coombe, puts it: “These are wonderful aspirations, but where are the local pools?”

If schools are to implement the aquatics programme in full, then the State’s 3,150 primary schools will have to find swimming pools for their pupils to use. The Republic has about 105 public pools, according to the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management. This includes 84 run by local authorities (although nine of these are closed). About 280 other pools are housed by hotels, private clubs and gyms; these are unlikely to be made available to schools.

This lack of access to swimming facilities seems to make the aquatics programme unrealistic. The Department of Education and Science disagrees. “Schools are encouraged to teach all aspects of the programme,” a spokeswoman says. “However, where they do not have access to a pool they are required to deliver what is feasible and reasonable. In this regard those units dealing with water safety and hygiene can be delivered in the context of the classroom.”

Irish Water Safety, the statutory body responsible for promoting safety awareness, backs the Government. It has developed the aquatics strand of the physical-education curriculum with the Department. “There are three levels to the programme which are theory based and seven which are pool based,” says Roger Sweeney, the organisation’s marketing executive. “Without having to go to a pool children can get three certificates in water safety through an educative CD-ROM, which the kids can engage with and learn about water safety in a fun way. It will raise awareness amongst children on the importance of water safety.”

Ideally, primary schools would fulfil all of the elements, but, he stresses, “the important part of the course is that it is geared towards working without pool access. It’s important we tackle water safety rather than not do anything about it simply because of lack of pool access. Over the last five years 30 children under the age of 14 have died through accidental drowning. That’s a classroom of children, and it emphasises the fact that something needs to be done to try and prevent that”.

Important and as fun as it may be, learning water safety through a computer program is not physical education, and teachers and parents remain unconvinced. “Obviously, there is a limited amount that you could teach within the classroom,” says Deirdre Cronin, who is also a Splash campaigner,”but it is completely farcical that you could teach aquatics in the classroom.”

Fionnuala Kilfeather, chief executive of the National Parents Council – Primary, is equally unimpressed. “Are they going to turn on the taps? The bath would be better. No, they couldn’t learn water safety in the classroom. The theory of water safety, oh great! It’s like they were to teach hurling in the classroom.”
Given the Deaprtment of Health and Children’s concern about obesity, it seems a good time for the Government to reassess local sports facilities.

“It’s ridiculous”, says Kilfeather. “I mean, on one hand you have the Government saying that children need more exercise and that child obesity is an issue, while on the other you havethem saying to teach water safety in the classroom. All departments need to look at and develop a strategic approach to developing local facilities that children could use, that schools could use and that would be open to the community.”
Investment in facilities such as the community pool in Dundrum would benefit schools and help tackle health issues, not only in today’s generations but also in generations to come.

Aengus Kirwan is determined that his stepson’s progress won’t be halted. “It looks like I won’t get him into lessons, but I’ll try to teach him myself at a pool. I had him out in the sea during the summer, just to get him used to the sea, and it went well.”

He is hopeful that the pool at Dundrum Family Recreation Centre will get the money it needs for redevelopment. “The campaign has a lot of support, and we will get a new pool. No ‘if’ about it. We’re thinking positively that the Government will see sense. There is a real argument here. It is important, and we’ll have swimming again in Dundrum yet.”

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