Drowning in risk aversion

Children are being turned away from swimming pools in Scotland because bureaucrats think they know better than parents how to keep kids safe.

Stuart Waiton

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James had been taking his children swimming for a while when one day he was stopped at the entrance of the Gorbals Leisure Centre in Glasgow. ‘I’m sorry, could I ask how old your children are?’ the attendant asked. It turned out that, like many council swimming pools across Scotland, the Gorbals Centre had introduced a new policy: each child aged four and under must be accompanied by an adult. This meant that for parents like James, who took turns with his wife to take their four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter swimming, the pool is out of bounds. The new rule was ‘in the interest of the safety of your children’, the attendant informed him.

Lizzie, who helps run a lone parents group in North Lanarkshire, similarly found to her disbelief and anger that when she and seven other parents turned up at their local swimming pool with nine children (that’s a ratio of eight adults to nine children), they too were turned away.

A colleague who lives in Edinburgh with her husband and three small children, all aged under four, has found that they cannot go swimming as a family – due to the one-to-one ratio required at her local pool for under fours. So her husband is forced to do a shuttle run – taking one child at a time, while she stays at home waiting to hand over child number two, and so on.

In effect, this means that single parents who have more than one young child, busy parents like James who try and take their children swimming by themselves, or indeed parents of more than two children under the age of eight, can forget about going swimming in many of the pools in Scotland.

This both discriminates against single parents and restricts many other parents and children from using council services. It also treats parents with contempt; the policy insinuates that they are irresponsible and are putting their children at risk, and it overrides parents’ say in their own children’s safety.

As James argues: ‘If I think it’s okay to take my kids swimming, that is surely my choice. I would never put my children at risk. I was so annoyed when this happened that I demanded to know if the pool manager loves my children more than I do! Because the suggestion is that I am putting my children in danger and in a sense my kids need to be protected from my negligence! It’s patronising and stupid.’

These safety first policies have been developed by the Institute of Sport and Leisure Management (ISRM) and incorporated into a growing number of council leisure services. The general suggested ratio is one adult to two children under four – but in many of the new all-purpose leisure pools that include areas with flumes, a stricter one-to-one ratio has been adopted. Interestingly, in comparison, private gyms with swimming pools appear to have no such policies and rely on the common sense of their members and staff.

Safety must clearly be a concern for those running these services, but, in fact, the new bureaucratic ratios being followed today have little to do with genuine safety issues. The statistics on the number of deaths in swimming pools is not that clear. However, figures in the parliamentary record Hansard show around two deaths of children under 17 each year for the last 10 years. How many of these fatalities were young children who were swimming with their parents is unclear.

However, surely children who are taken swimming by their parents are the least likely to be at risk of drowning – especially those under four years old. They will be supervised pretty much all the time, from the moment they enter the pool to the time parents are drying them, wiping their nose and helping pull their pants up. These children, many of them toddlers who can barely walk, will probably be the safest people in the pool, with their armbands, rubber rings and constant adult supervision. And yet they are being turned away in their droves from half-empty pools with yawning lifeguards because our safety obsessed society has adopted a rubber stamp that says correct ratio on it.

The fact that parents and children are being turned away from the newly built leisure centres in their communities is a cause for concern in and of itself. But child safety appears to swamp all other considerations and turn those providing these services into insurance clerks rather than providers of public services.

Only a few weeks ago, Tom Mullarkey, the chief executive of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) argued that overzealous bureaucrats were undermining legitimate health and safety concerns due to a loss of common sense. His idea that Britain should be made as ‘safe as necessary, not as safe as possible’ should be heeded by Scottish councils. Instead, as Helene Guldberg notes elsewhere on spiked, a risk-averse attitude not only prevents parents from using facilities but deprives children of valuable experiences, too (see A playground tumble can do you good).

Today, in contrast to Mullarkey’s comments, council leisure centres are adopting a ‘safe as possible’ approach. Parents are patronised and treated robotically, as if they represent a threat to their own children; staff become box-ticking ratio bureaucrats rather than people who take genuine responsibility for thinking about how to run a swimming pool in the interest of the public.

The question of child safety in swimming pools and of how many children an adult takes swimming should be something that is negotiated by experienced professionals and parents themselves. Only by preventing the over-bureaucratised approach to child safety can we encourage a more sensible and public-spirited approach and get more children swimming

Stuart Waiton is a member of the campaign group Generation Youth Issues. The group are launching a campaign called ‘Cotton Wool Kids Can’t Swim’ to challenge the development of these child safety policies. To find out more or get in touch go to the Generation Youth Issues website.

Previously on spiked

Helene Guldberg questioned whether childhood should really come with a health warning and said a plethora of new books were peddling childish panic. Stuart Waiton argued that adults should not be afraid to challenge children. In her monthly guide to subversive parenting, Jennie Bristow sends today’s parenting fads and panics to the naughty step. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

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Topics Politics