Brian Monteith: Why are we not splashing out on swimming lessons?

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It is a sad indictment of our modern times to find that the Scottish Government would rather put money into a lost cause such as Prestwick Airport or give help to a commercial rock festival like T in the Park than support the teaching of swimming to our own youngsters.

Thanks to a freedom of information request by the Scottish Conservatives, we can see that some of our local councils are failing to help our kids learn to swim. It is now believed to be so bad that as many as 40 per cent of primary school pupils cannot swim by the time they go to secondary school.

Fortunately, Edinburgh is one of the better councils, and according to official statistics manages to provide lessons for all pupils (readers may know differently of course) but Midlothian and the Borders both fail in this moral duty.

Shockingly – and shamefully – many councils simply refused to answer the question put to them. Hopefully they will be pressed to do so by the Information Commissioner as the public has a right to know just what its councils are doing.

So, given this dreadful state of affairs, what does our SNP government do? Does it beat up on the councils and get them to address the situation? No, back in June (after the elections were out of the way) our anti-austerity, anti-obesity government cut the budget for swimming provision by £1.72 million – that’s a lot of swimming lessons.

The chief culprit here is undoubtedly the local councils – for it is they who ultimately determine what is spent locally – but there is a strangely disappointing response from central government that should have taken the opportunity to send a message to our councils.

Giving every child the chance to learn to swim is vital; it is obviously not as important as being able to read, write or count but, like knowing how to cross a road, it can save lives. Too many children are taken from us by accidents in rivers, lochs and the sea because they were weak swimmers at best.

In England, every child must be given swimming lessons through the school curriculum – but not in Scotland. And yet we know our obesity levels in children are worse than they were ten years ago and the chief reason for this is not the diet but the change in young lifestyles, with less exercise, less outside play and more sedentary time in front of gaming console and computers.

That’s why the Scottish Government should be helping parents by taking to task the councils that are not providing the lessons. Parents would be right to ask what they pay their taxes for if they are not receiving the basic services they have every right to expect.

Instead, it pours over £40m into a passenger airport that should be an aeronautical and industrial zone with freight transport flights only – the rest switching to Glasgow or even Edinburgh – and lashes money at 
T in the Park. What a strange sense of priorities!

This from a government that is regularly telling us how to bring our children up, how parents are not responsible enough and so every child must have a state guardian – and yet the state cannot be good enough to guarantee a swimming lesson for every child. The public needs to send a message to the Education Secretary that this is simply not good enough.

While the Conservatives had a success with exposing the poverty of thinking and poor priorities of the Scottish Government, they let themselves down this week when their leader, Ruth Davidson, announced she would be seeking election in next year’s Scottish Parliament vote for the Lothian division rather than Glasgow. She will no doubt be top of the Tories’ list in the Lothians and therefore be a shoe-in, but it is poor politics for her party for it sends a message that she is leaving Glasgow behind when it is a city that the Tories must do better in. It also suggests the Conservatives fear she cannot win there and that the leader would no longer be in parliament.

It is good for Edinburgh, however, for together with Labour’s Kezia Dugdale they will provide strong personalities and voices to promote the city’s interests.

Ruth Davidson argues that by standing in the Lothians she can help the Conservatives win three seats, but the history books suggest this is unlikely. In the relatively good electoral times of the early years of the Scottish Parliament – when David McLetchie and James Douglas-Hamilton were the two Tory members – a third member was never won. The Greens scooped that place up instead. Why the Tories think having Ruth Davidson will take them to a position that’s better than then beats me.

Instead, it suggests the Tories are circling their wagons to try and shore up their electoral position and protect the leader. And what does it offer for Glasgow? That’s maybe not the concern of us here in Edinburgh, but for those of us who wish to see the right of centre political support expand it seems like a retreat. Rather like 
cutting back on swimming lessons. Politicians, eh?