Sa, 2.12.2023

Estonian state to make waves by training every child into swimmer

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Illustration: Graafik: PM

International fame of Estonia may not remain limited to teaching programming in preschool if four ministries manage to pull off the following: by age of ten, teaching all children to swim decently. At that, the measurements would be among Europe's meanest. 

Currently, basic school curriculum requires that by 6th grade a student pass elementary swimming courses. For that, since 2005 and via local governments, the state hands schools €230,000 a year. The rest is added by local governments as they are able.  

The result is patched, as may have been expected. On the average, an Estonian student does get the 24 hours of training, but in some of the schools with money and options scarce, the hours are way lower or totally absent. Meanwhile, the requirements are easy: by the end of the course, a student should be able to swim 25 metres in a style preferred.

As Rescue Board checked swimming skills of kids who passed the basic course last year, the picture was bleak. Mere 14 percent had acquired the needed skills. For comparison: in the UK with the same 25 metres requirement, at least half of children do cover the distance.

«Honestly, 25 metres is no swimming skill,» says a swimming coach and a leading Estonian long distance swimmer Bruno Nopponen.

Mr Nopponen is part of Estonian Swimming Union and Rescue Board expert group who, teaming up with interior, culture, education and social ministries has written a new basic swimming training plan. Which is more than ambitious.

Saving skills

Summing it up, they propose that by 2019 the government increase the state funding tenfold, and toughen up the requirements.

Instead of the average 24 hours, the basic training should be 40 hours per kid – minimum. And they may not wait till end of 6th grade but must be skilled swimmers in 3rd grade already – this being the time when a kid learns fastest and retains the skill.

They have set high requirements. Experts suggest that by end of the course, a child should be able to jump into water above his head and to then proceed to swim 100 metres breast position, dive, fetch an item from the bottom by hand, stay in the surface resting for three minutes, and then swim back on his back to where he first started off.

If applied, the requirements would be among European toughest, if not global. The 200 metre requirement is indeed applied in lots of schools in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, but for the most part this needs to be proven in 5th grade and the diving is omitted.  

According to Mr Nopponen, the aim is to teach the children to save themselves or be able to float till rescued. «If you can swim for 200 metres, you may also swim for two kilometres. Less than 200 metres may be covered at deficiency of oxygen, but a longer distance is impossible without knowing how to breathe properly. And this is swimming skill,» explains Mr Nopponen.

His observations come from Viimsi School where he has served as swimming coach for years. «Our 4th grade may swim 400–500 metres running,» assures Mr Nopponen.

Understandably, the plan has a price. The signatory ministries find that to reach the results, the state should assume total responsibility for the courses and leave local governments out. Instead of the yearly €230,000, the state should splash out €1.93m.  

The sum would include swimming pool tickets and transport for the children, but not only that. Additionally, an extra instructor ought to be hired for every 12 children i.e. a calculated 1,067 assistant instructors.

The ministries are open about the goal: cutting deaths by drowning and reach the Nordic level. Though the drowning deaths are declining, the past four-five years still took an amount of Estonian lives equal to the 1994 ferryboat Estonia disaster.

At that, children’s drowning is doubtless the most painful. Often, they drown in shallow water where the tragedy could have been avoided by better swimming skills even slightly better. «Estonia abounds with pools and ponds where kids can fall into. The skill to save oneself is vital with the entire swimming training,» says interior ministry adviser Helen Ojamaa-Muru.

The painful money issue

Though the four ministries have now teamed up, for years the government has lacked unity about the extra swimming money added or not. Last year, at the budget talks, culture minister applied for €400,000 instead of €230,000 but the finance minister said no. Now, however, the sum is way bigger.

The ministries are tossing the responsibility between each other. In mid-February, culture minister Indrek Saar (Soc Dems) forwarded the plan to state administration minister Arto Aas (Reform) – who shares same building with finance minister Sven Sester (IRL) –, to be presented in the government by him. By now, they have agreed that Mr Saar will do it himself.

The applications for extra money will be deliberated at government at end of April. In the form of a debate.

Meanwhile, nobody knows whether the programme would cut the deaths after all. It cannot be excluded that though skills get better, a fraction of the swimmers will become overconfident in the future. Sweden being a good illustration: while 95 percent of basic school students can swim, drowning is still the third most widespread cause for death among children.