The majority of primary school children will be unable to swim a length of a pool by 2025, a report by Swim England and MPs has warned.
Before the Covid pandemic, around a quarter of children could not swim the statutory 25 metres when they left primary school – but it is feared this could rise to three in five by 2025-26.
The figures, released by the all-party parliamentary group for swimming and Swim England, the national governing body, reveal that more than 1.1 million pupils are expected to leave primary school between 2021-22 and 2025-26 unable to swim one length unaided.
As part of the national curriculum, all primary schools must provide swimming lessons and every pupil is required to be able to competently swim at least 25 metres, use a range of strokes effectively and perform safe self-rescue in different situations.
But with pools closed and pupils not having face-to-face learning for much of the 2020-21 academic year, swimming lessons were "massively affected", the report said.
"Even when schools were open, public swimming pools across the country were shut, meaning that for schools without their own pool it was not possible for lessons to take place," it added.
The all-party parliamentary group will be raising the issue with the Department for Education "as a matter of urgency", Catherine West, the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green in north London, who chairs the group, said.
"Swimming and water safety is a vital life skill that every child should have," she added. "Aside from the numerous health and wellbeing benefits of swimming, it is no exaggeration to say that learning how to swim and about the importance of water safety are skills that could one day save a life.
"With drowning sadly remaining one of the most common causes of accidental death in the UK, this is more important than ever."
The report called for schools to run catch-up sessions for pupils who missed out on lessons during the pandemic, holiday clubs targeted at those not meeting the curriculum requirements and parents who can afford to should enrol their children in extra swimming lessons.
"What we'd like to see is swimming being much more part of the curriculum, and the schools to have it as part of their Ofsted inspection," Ms West told The Telegraph. "Obviously headteachers will respond if they know they’re going to be marked on it."
She said Ofsted reports do not take swimming into account "to the degree that we'd like", adding: "The thing about swimming, as opposed to football or rugby, is that it can kill you if you can't swim."
The report also revealed inequalities in school swimming and water safety levels before the pandemic, with less than half of children from the least affluent families able to swim one length by the time they begin secondary school.
By the end of this academic year, 54 per cent of children from the most deprived areas of England will be able to swim 25 metres, compared to 68 per cent of those living in the least deprived areas, it said.
Disparity is also evident across ethnicity, with 51 per cent of children from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds able to swim the requirement, compared to 66 per cent of white British children.
"I think if your parents don't swim you're much less likely as a child to be taken swimming… and also the availability and cost of swimming –these days it costs more than it should to swim," said Ms West.