The Yomiuri ShimbunAlthough pools are rare at public elementary and junior high schools overseas, such facilities are usually available at their Japanese counterparts. Children in Europe usually take swimming lessons at community pools, while Japanese students do so at their own schools.
However, more elementary and junior high schools are holding swimming lessons outside their grounds recently, in part due to the cost of repairing and maintaining deteriorating outdoor school pools.
Holding lessons at off-campus pools costs less and can involve specialized instruction, but also brings up issues such as how to transport children to the facilities and find time for these classes. Some municipalities have decided to stop giving swimming lessons altogether.
On June 19, about 60 third- and fourth-graders from Minamoto Elementary School in Chiba were taking a swimming lesson at an indoor pool at a nearby fitness club.
“Stay relaxed while you kick,” an instructor said as the children learned how to flutter kick and breathe.
“It’s not cold and the instructions are easy to understand,” said a 10-year-old fourth-grader.
This fiscal year, the Chiba municipal government stopped using pools at two of its public elementary schools because they had deteriorated. It costs about ¥1.5 million per year to maintain a school pool, and repairs can cost up to about ¥14 million. Pools also add to teachers’ workload, as they must manage water quality and handle other tasks.
Outsourcing swimming lessons costs about ¥4 million per year for the two schools, but lessons can be held even on rainy days and students can receive specialized instruction. On that day, only one teacher needs to accompany students from two homeroom classes, which may help reform work practices for teachers.
The city’s board of education said it will look into issues surrounding the outsourcing, such as the time required for Minamoto Elementary School’s children to travel to the outside facility — about 15 minutes by bus — and how to ensure safety.
Around the country, more and more outdoor pools have been disappearing from school grounds.
According to the Sports Agency, there were 27,757 school pools nationwide in fiscal 1996, but the figure had declined about 25 percent in fiscal 2015 to 20,820. This rate was much larger than the 13 percent decrease in the number of elementary and junior high schools over that same period, due to integration or closure.
The agency is currently compiling the latest statistics. “The decline has continued since fiscal 2015, which suggests more schools are holding swimming lessons outside their grounds,” said an agency official.
“It’s become difficult to maintain school pools that were built at a time when the economy and population were ever-growing,” said Prof. Yuji Nemoto at Toyo University.
In an opposing trend, some municipalities have closed community pools and instead opened school facilities to the public. A survey conducted by the agency in fiscal 2014 showed that 25 percent of elementary and junior high schools opened their pools to the general public.
Some municipalities have ended swimming lessons altogether, because of difficulties finding enough time in the school schedule.
The Ebina municipal government in Kanagawa Prefecture, for example, had closed the pools at all its elementary and junior high school pools by fiscal 2011, and instead held swimming lessons off campus. In fiscal 2015, the city’s junior high schools ended swimming lessons altogether. They initially allocated two consecutive lesson slots for swimming for students from multiple homeroom classes, but found it more and more difficult to do so and also secure time for other subjects.
“We want to give students swimming lessons,” one principal said. “However, it’s become hard to do partly because of the time required [for students] to travel [to outside facilities].”
In contrast, the Yokohama municipal government has decided to maintain its school pools. During fiscal 2012, one school held swimming lessons at a nearby school, but it is now holding them at its own pool because traveling to the other school took too much time.
Under the government’s official teaching guidelines, physical education should be offered in 90 to 105 lessons per year in elementary school, with one lesson lasting for 45 minutes. The subject should be offered in 105 classes in junior high, with one lesson lasting 50 minutes. The guidelines stipulate that swimming is a compulsory element for students from the first grade of elementary school through the second grade of junior high school.
According to the agency, the number of swimming lessons is left to the schools’ discretion, and if a suitable location is not available, they do not need to be held.
“The decision is up to each school, but we’d like them to hold lessons because swimming is compulsory,” an agency official said.
Lessons started to prevent accidents
Swimming lessons became widespread in Japan after World War II, as part of efforts to prevent a repeat of tragic water accidents involving children.
According to Prof. Atsunori Matsui at Naruto University of Education, the movement was triggered mainly by an accident in May 1955 in which 168 people — including many elementary and junior high school students on school trips — were killed when a ferry sank off the coast of Kagawa Prefecture. This disaster prompted schools nationwide to build their own pools.
The teaching guidelines for elementary school initially categorized swimming as “among other exercise” in physical education, but its status was upgraded to a distinct discipline when the guidelines were revised in fiscal 1968.
“Teaching swimming is important to keeping children safe,” Matsui said. “Rather than simply relying on the private sector, schools should examine how to help teachers maintain their ability to provide instruction [in this area].”