Thursday, 22 June 2017
I congratulate the Minister for Education on his reappointment. I am sure everyone is delighted for him. He has a significant passion for education and he fits the role exceptionally well, so I wish him well in the coming weeks and months.
This is the time of year when people who perhaps would not have much experience in water tend to explore it, via sailing or swimming or other activities. Many young people in particular go swimming in the sea and in the rivers and lakes of this country. We are an island nation and are surrounded by water, so it is a significant factor in the lives of our citizens.
For a long time I have been promoting the need for water safety education in our schools, and I am happy to say that compared with when I was young in County Clare, where residents in fishing areas in particular did not want their children to learn how to swim because they had such a fear of the sea, that kind of taboo is now gone and young people are being encouraged to engage with water safety training and learn how to swim. Even in my own parish of Ennistymon and Lahinch over 1,000 young people come to the pool in Lahinch during the winter months to learn how to swim and to get an appreciation of water safety.
It is a great privilege for young people to be able to do that, to learn how to swim, to enjoy the water and to develop a respect for the water. It should not really be a privilege but rather something that should happen automatically in every school. There is absolutely no reason every young child who leaves primary school, going into secondary school, should not have a basic understanding of water safety and the importance of water, and that they should not have acquired a respect for water. It is brought into sharp focus by the weather that we have had in the last week. The weather encourages people to use the water, and that creates risks.Thousands of young people leave primary school without any understanding of water safety and the importance of respecting water. I am calling on the Minister to give us a timeline at least as to when we can expect that water safety training and education will be a compulsory part of the curriculum at primary level.
I thank Senator Conway for raising this issue. The truth is that the curriculum does have a considerable element devoted to physical education at primary level. The teacher training programme is designed to enable teachers to deliver all the elements of the curriculum, including aquatics and water safety. There is a module in the curriculum that deals specifically with the issue raised by the Senator. Obviously, having it on the curriculum and having it delivered 100% are two different things. It is really for parents, teachers and pupils to work within the curriculum to emphasise issues that are of public concern. Given the events of recent days and the urgings, I have no doubt there will be more interest in this element of the curriculum.
It is difficult if not impossible for the Department to track to what extent each one of the 3,200 schools emphasises water safety in its programme of physical education. However, it is there as a key element of the programme. The aquatics strand aims to support children in developing water confidence, basic swimming skills and an acute awareness of water safety. The development of these skills enables children to enjoy and to engage safely in water-based activities. Awareness of potential hazards and how to respond appropriately to incidents that threaten personal and group safety are an integral element of the aquatics strand. The strand is divided into a number of units. These include areas such as water safety, entry to and exit from the water, buoyancy and propulsion, and understanding and appreciation of aquatics. The curriculum provides adequately for the issue of concern to the Senator. In each case, schools must decide which elements of a programme are emphasised.
It is encouraging to note that Irish Water Safety, IWS, whose CEO, Mr. John Leech, spoke on the radio recently, has some very good programmes available to teachers who want to engage in this area. My Department has provided support this year and in previous years for primary teachers who wish to attend IWS courses during the summer. It is hoped this will provide an incentive for more teachers to familiarise themselves with some of the available material. Of course, IWS is not the only source of good material for supporting water safety education in our schools. Emphasising the importance of water safety is an area for which we all have a responsibility, as parents, teachers and members of the broader community. It is not really to inspect it in our education system. It is a question of partnerships involving schools, parents, community groups and local facilities to equip young people to be aware of the very genuine risks that exist.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I heard the interview with Mr. John Leech to which the Minister referred, during which he bemoaned the fact that water safety is not as high a priority as it should be in our schools. I accept that water safety is part of the curriculum, but as the Minister said himself, subjects being on the curriculum and being delivered are two very different things. One practical measure the Minister could take would be to issue a circular over the summer to all primary schools pointing out their obligations in terms of addressing water safety as part of the curriculum. Were the Department to send a circular to all 3,200 primary schools, we might have achieved something by raising this issue here this morning.
I will consider the Senator's proposal but I am very conscious that the physical education element of the curriculum has so many aspects to it and to single out just one part could cause difficulties. I am also conscious that many school principals bemoan circular overload from the Department and I do not want to be adding to their load. To some degree, an awareness of water safety should be a basic element and anyone involved in physical education should be aware of it. I hope our efforts this year to provide resources for teachers to upskill themselves by taking part in IWS courses will be an incentive in itself. Perhaps if we alert people to the availability of that programme, it would have the same effect as sending a circular which might appear to be placing an emphasis on one element of the curriculum at the expense of others. I will discuss with officials how we can best do this to address the concerns the Senator has raised.