- A World Health Organization (WHO) report identifies drowning as one of the ten leading causes of death in children and young people and suggests that more should be done to prevent it.
- All schools with a swimming pool should have safety policies and procedures in place.
- Where a school uses another pool offsite it should obtain copies of the operating procedures and emergency plan from the pool owner.
- Teachers have a duty of care for any activity in which their children are involved, including swimming.
- Access to pools should be strictly controlled and unauthorised access prevented.
- All school ponds and water features should be subject to risk assessment.
- Water safety on school outings is essential. Parental consent should be obtained and full safety arrangements circulated.
A new World Health Organization (WHO) report has revealed that drowning is one of the ten leading causes of death in children and young people, causing more deaths among under-15s than tuberculosis or measles.
The global survey suggests that drowning claims more than 372,000 lives each year, with children under five most at risk. The WHO suggests that much more should be done to prevent drowning, including teaching school-aged children basic swimming, water safety and safe rescue skills, and strengthening public awareness of the risks.
The safety of pupils around water is an important consideration for schools. What are the most common water risks and how should schools go about controlling them?
Swimming pool policies and procedures
The most significant potential water hazard in schools is the swimming pool.
Pool safety considerations include:
- safe operating of the pool
- safe use of the pool
- teaching swimming skills
- controlling access.
Where a school uses another pool offsite it should obtain copies of the operating procedures and emergency plan from the pool owner.
All schools with a swimming pool should have safety policies and procedures in place, including a normal operating plan and an emergency action plan. Risk assessments should be completed and reviewed regularly. A nominated person should be responsible for applying the policies and procedures.
The operating plan should comply with Health & Safety Executive (HSE) guidance and include:
- safe systems of work and operating procedures
- detailed working instructions, e.g. those relating to cleaning the pool
- supervisory arrangements, e.g. numbers of staff to children using the pool
- first aid and emergency arrangements
- conditions of hire to other schools and outside organisations.
Pools should be appropriately maintained and managed. Plant should be regularly serviced according to manufacturers’ instructions. Chemicals should be used and stored safely. The quality and condition of the pool water should be carefully monitored to ensure that the pool is safe to use. Staff responsible for the day-to-day operation of the pool should be appropriately trained and have access to expert advice.
Pool operators should be aware of hazards posed by uncovered outlets at the bottom of pools, which can trap swimmers. Suitable covers must be securely fitted with grille openings according to HSE recommendations.
Safe use of the pool
Teaching children to swim is a valuable life saving skill currently embedded within the national curriculum. However, pools can be dangerous places if used improperly.
Risks are increased by:
- inadequate supervision
- overcrowding or unruly behaviour
- diving into the pool, especially into insufficient depth of water
- weak swimmers straying out of their depth
- unclear or murky water
- absence of or inadequate response by lifeguards.
Teachers have a duty of care for any activity in which their children are involved, including swimming. All swimming sessions should be appropriately supervised by an adequate number of suitably trained and qualified staff. For maintained schools, local authorities (LAs) may publish requirements that should be applied, including ratios of swimmers to supervisors/lifeguards.
A range of qualifications is available from bodies such as the Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS UK), the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) and the Swimming Teachers’ Association (STA). All of these organisations will also offer advice and guidance.
The ASA recommends that, because of the special understanding they have of their pupils, primary school teachers should accompany their own class to swimming lessons whenever possible.
Schools without their own pool will usually have to make appropriate arrangements with pool owners for lifeguarding.
Pupils with disabilities or medical conditions that might affect their swimming safety should be considered individually.
Warnings should be given against running and other irresponsible behaviour and repeated as needed. Appropriate signage should be in place and slip and trip hazards addressed.
All pools must be equipped with essential safety equipment, first aid equipment and a means of raising an alarm. Pool depths should be clearly marked.
If the pool is hired out, the school must ensure that any outside organisation uses the pool in a safe manner.
Access to pools should be strictly controlled and unauthorised access prevented. This applies both to people just wandering in to the pool area and to intruders. When not in use or attended, all doors and windows should be secured. Improper use of the pool by intruders can result in accidents, injuries and even death.
Ponds and water features
Many schools have ponds or water features. These are often developed to support teaching, or as part of the school’s support for wildlife, ecology, biodiversity and sustainability.
Even relatively shallow water can be dangerous and can lead to drowning, especially where young children are concerned. All school ponds should be subject to risk assessment. Assessments should consider the depth of water and access. Ponds should be secured with suitable fencing, barriers and warning notices. Pond edges should be shallow, with deeper areas in the centre. Overall depth should be kept as shallow as possible. It may be appropriate to cover some ponds with a suitable mesh. Access points should be marked and walkways maintained.
Teaching sessions should be appropriately supervised. Rules for the use of ponds should be prepared and circulated. These should include emergency and first aid procedures.
Staff in primary schools and nursery classes should watch out for ditches filling with water where children can gain access.
Outings and trips
Water safety on school outings is also a serious concern. There have been a number of tragic cases over the years where school pupils have been killed in water-related activities on trips.
Any school outings or field trips to water parks or places near water need to be conducted according to school policies and approval procedures. All such trips should be fully assessed in compliance with The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and action taken to control any risks. This is especially important with field trips and adventure centre holidays, particularly if they involve activities such as canoeing. All such activities should be planned carefully by the trip leader in collaboration with the centre. Parental consent should be obtained and full safety arrangements circulated.
Teachers on such trips are obliged to take all reasonably practical measures to ensure that every child under their control and supervision is safe and protected from any unacceptable risks.
In its guidance, Planning and leading visits and adventurous activities, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) states that careful attention to health and safety should not stifle the adventurous spirit of school visits; rather, it should create an environment where significant risks are well managed.
Before visiting any activity centre providing water-based programmes, schools should seek assurance about safety standards, including any quality marks or licenses (such centres must, by law, be licensed with the Adventure Activities Licensing Service) and about the competency of centre staff.
When planning activities, trip leaders should consider a wide range of factors, including:
- water temperatures, weather forecasts and tidal conditions
- the swimming competency of all members of the party in ‘real conditions’
- clothing and equipment
- life-saving expertise and equipment
- emergency arrangements, including summoning assistance.
In water safety incidents outdoors, the ability of an individual or group to recognise the symptoms of hypothermia, fatigue or stress and respond appropriately is particularly important.
Effective water safety training should be incorporated in any outside activities. National ‘water wise’ campaigns are run often, facilitated by organisations such as the RLSS UK and RoSPA, and schools are encouraged to support them. The Water Safety Code is a good place to start.
The Water Safety Code
The Code encourages people to spot the dangers of swimming in places such as seas, lakes or rivers:
- the water can be very cold
- there may be hidden currents
- it can be difficult to get out (steep slimy banks)
- the water may be deep, and it is difficult to estimate depth
- there may be hidden obstacles
- there are no lifeguards
- the water may be polluted and may make people ill.
The code also teaches people to:
- take heed of safety advice – such as warning flags on beaches
- go together – children should always go with an adult
- learn to help – people should know what to do in an emergency.
Teaching pupils and their parents water safety awareness is a basic survival skill and will have benefits far beyond the school swimming pool or the school outing.
Further guidance on lifeguarding and swimming pool safety can be obtained from:
- The Royal Life Saving Society UK: www.rlss.org.uk
- The Amateur Swimming Association: www.swimming.org/asa
- The Swimming Teachers’ Association: www.sta.co.uk
- Managing health and safety in swimming pools is available from the HSE. See http://bit.ly/SwimmingPoolHandS
- ASA Guidance for School Swimming can be downloaded from http://bit.ly/ASAGuidance
- The DfE’s Managing School Facilities Guide 2 – Swimming Pools can be downloaded from http://bit.ly/ManagingPoolsGuide
- RoSPA’s Pond dipping – Water safety information can be downloaded from http://bit.ly/PondDipping
- The WHO’s Global report on drowning – preventing a leading killer can be downloaded from http://bit.ly/WHOPreventDrowning
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:
- Checklist – Swimming pools on the premises: Gathering information89 KB
- Checklist – Swimming pools on the premises: Daily maintenance and safety checks36.5 KB
- Checklist – Swimming pools on the premises: Weekly maintenance and safety checks35 KB
- Checklist – Organised visits: Swimming pools63 KB
About the author
Martin Hodgson MSc, PGCEA has worked in adult education for most of his career and has been a governor of a large technology college for nearly 10 years. His special interests are premises management and health and safety.