By Francesca Borgonovi, Helke Seitz and Irina Vogel
Analysts, OECD Centre for Skills
– In OECD countries only 3 in 4 adults report being able to swim but in low-income countries this figure is around than 1 in 4.
– Irrespective of the level of economic development, individuals who attended school for longer are more likely to report being able to swim without assistance than individuals who attended school for fewer years.
– Swimming pools were hit hard by COVID-19 closures and now by the energy crisis and high energy costs. Lower pool temperatures and swimming pool closures may jeopardise children’s development of potentially life-saving swimming skills.
As winter approaches and temperatures drop in the Northern Hemisphere, reduced gas supplies and growing energy prices globally raise fears of energy shortages and skyrocketing energy bills for consumers and businesses. Consequently, consumers, producers, and public administrations have been encouraged to reduce their energy consumption.
The public debate about the energy crisis is rightly dominated by concerns over the financial burden on vulnerable populations due to heating their homes, inflationary spirals, declining production output and fiscal policies. However, the ancillary effects of the energy crisis on other spheres of life are rarely discussed. In particular, as governments are encouraging populations to reduce energy consumption, high-energy-consuming recreational facilities such as swimming pools may be especially hard. Energy is used to heat water, air, and shower temperatures for a comfortable swimming experience. As energy prices increase, swimming pool operators report that their energy bills are rapidly becoming unsustainable to maintain service.
Some swimming pools are lowering water temperatures, making water instruction less comfortable for young learners, others are shortening opening hours or closing temporarily.
Crucially, the effects of the energy crisis on swimming instruction is following the closure of swimming pools during generalised closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the French physical education union (Syndicat National de l’Éducation Physique, SNEP) estimated that a generation of around 800,000 school pupils were unable to learn to swim in 2020 and 2021. If these measures are implemented on a large scale, some children will not be able to swim or, even worse, will not learn how to swim.
But even without the energy crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic many people worldwide failed to learn how to swim without assistance and thus lacked a valuable life skill. In our newly released working paper Swimming skills around the world – Evidence on inequalities in life skills across and within countries we use data from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll 2019 and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Health Estimates (GHE) estimates to map who and where people are not able to swim without assistance and the high burden of drowning rates around the world.
As recently as 2019 (the year with global data) there were major differences across countries in the ability to swim across the world. For example, in Sweden and the Netherlands 95% of the adult population reported being able to swim without assistance whereas in Rwanda and Pakistan a country recently devastated by floodings, less than 18% of the adult population did the same. This means that even though on average across OECD countries only 3 in 4 adults reported being able to swim without assistance, in low-income countries around 1 in 4 did. For those that are still in education or recently completed their studies 84% of young people in OECD countries between the ages of 15 and 29 are able to swim compared to 32% of that age group from low-income countries.
This means that even though on average across OECD countries only 3 in 4 adults reported being able to swim without assistance, in low-income countries around 1 in 4 did.
In fact, the percentage of individuals who are able to swim without assistance is higher among younger cohorts, a factor that at least in part reflects the efforts of education systems to build this key life skill. Disparities by level of educational attainment show that, irrespective of the level of economic development, individuals who attended school for longer are more likely to report being able to swim without assistance than individuals who attended school for fewer years. This highlights the key role of education systems but also that socio-economic status in many countries remains a barrier to the acquisition of this key skill.
Whether swimming pools close, operate at reduced capacity, or with water temperatures that are too cold for those who are learning to swim, swimming lessons provided in public pools or as part of the school curriculum are most likely to be disrupted in the coming months leading to widening inequalities. Economically vulnerable households may in fact be unable to pay for private swimming classes and swimming pool access fees. Energy-related disruptions may prolong and even exacerbate missed opportunities for young people to build swimming skills that arose because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Swimming is a key life skill: it can be potentially life-saving and expands individuals’ possibility to engage in physical exercise and labour market opportunities on or near water. Even though the energy crisis brings many complex challenges, education systems should not lose sight of the importance of building important life skills such as swimming. In the short term, in cities with several swimming facilities, some could be dedicated to those who are starting to learn to swim and ensure that these pools are adequately heated. Swimming classes could be re-thought so that when learners are in the water they spend more time moving. Swimming gear designed to keep swimmers warm could be made available to learners. In the long term, pools should be designed to minimise energy use, and could be located alongside facilities that need cooling such as data centres, and special support should be provided to the cohorts of students who did not learn how to swim because of the pandemic and the energy crisis.
- Paper | Swimming skills around the world. Evidence on inequalities in life skills across and within countries
- Report | Education in the Digital Age: Healthy and Happy Children
- Report | The OECD Skills Outlook series
- Website | The Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll