The closure of almost 300 school swimming pools in the past decade has been linked to New Zealand's horror youth drowning rate.
Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty has called on the government to relax pool "regulations" imposed on school boards of trustees or ensure council-owned facilities were opened up for free to provide Kiwi kids with what could be life-saving swimming training.
Her comments follow a horror start to 2011, with 27 drownings. That figure includes seven people under the age of 14, including six preschoolers – the same number as during the whole of 2010.
This year's fatalities include two-year-old Nylah Faamanu Vau, who drowned last Saturday at the Waiwera Thermal Resort, north of Auckland.
"I am not an expert on regulations. But I do know you can learn to swim in a small pool without flash facilities," Delahunty told the Sunday Star-Times.
"If we are talking about basic water safety skills, it doesn't need to be an Olympic pool.
"I think it would be worth us considering whether there is some room to review regulations. We have got some very high quality pools, we have got schools with fabulous swimming pools ... some of them private schools, I know."
Delahunty said while giving school age kids greater access to pools would do little to improve preschoolers' ability in the water, lessons that students learnt while at school would ensure they could better supervise their young children in the future.
The Green Party education spokeswoman – who last week released her Real Education Report after visiting schools around New Zealand – also revealed drownings cost New Zealand $392 million per year.
"So investing in reducing our drowning toll would be money well spent," Delahunty said.
She said that could be achieved through a combination of building new school pools, sharing pools between local schools, and increased council and government support for schools using public pools, including waiving the entry fee or subsidising transport costs.
In total, 135 youths aged up to 14 have died in New Zealand in the decade between the start of pool closures in 2000 through to December 31, 2010.
In 2010, 86 people drowned, including six aged under 14, and in 2009, 114 people drowned, with 13 aged under 14.
Water Safety New Zealand was unable to release further statistics due to failures with its online database.
Delahunty released figures which revealed 294 school pools had closed since 2000, including 78 in 2005. "We are losing our culture of swimming education and it is having disastrous effects," she said.
"We really need the government to make this a priority... it is a life or death issue."
She said if the government wasn't going to make it easier for schools to have pools, then it had to provide funds to transport students to public pools, plus provide their entry cost.
Education Minister Anne Tolley said that was already happening.
"Schools receive maintenance funding for pools in their operational funding," Tolley told the Sunday Star-Times.
"Schools using a community pool can use the funding they would have spent on operating expenses to pay entry charges and costs of transporting students to the pool."
Tolley added it was too simplistic to blame the high drowning rate on the level of water-wise education provided at schools.
"Teaching water skills is not a job for schools alone, but for families and communities as well," she said.
Water Safety New Zealand general manager Matt Claridge was overseas and not available for interview.
But he said in a statement earlier in the week that the spate of preschool drownings to date in 2011 highlighted that key watercare messages weren't getting through.
"Preschool drowning incidents in New Zealand occur at an unacceptable rate," he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News