VacSwim classes reinstated

Daryna ZadvirnaNarrogin Observer
Phillipa Ellis, Stefie Green, Annika Miller, Fletcher Miller, Penny Martin, Melissa Martin, Diggah Martin, Husky Martin, Matilda Martin.
Camera IconPhillipa Ellis, Stefie Green, Annika Miller, Fletcher Miller, Penny Martin, Melissa Martin, Diggah Martin, Husky Martin, Matilda Martin. Credit: Daryna Zadvirna

The State Government has reinstated summer school holiday swimming lessons for children in several Wheatbelt towns after being accused of putting young lives at risk.

Earlier this month, the Department of Education had cut 11 rural centres from the summer VacSwim program, and cut down classes for other towns.

Nationals WA leader and Member for Central Wheatbelt Mia Davies raised the issue in State Parliament after being approached by Wheatbelt residents and said removing the program without consultation showed the government was out of touch with issues faced by families in regional areas.

“It is unfair to expect parents to make 100km or longer round trips to neighbouring towns so their children could access swimming lessons,” she told the Observer.

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“Compounded by the National Drowning Report 2019 released last week, which concluded people in regional and remote areas are 2.3 times more likely to drown than those in metropolitan areas.”

Wickepin, Williams and Brookton were among the communities riled after hearing about the VacSwim cuts.

Shire of Wickepin chief executive Mark Hook said he was extremely frustrated and disappointed with the way the Shire was told of the cancellation.

“All we got was an email from the Education Department saying that ‘we decided we haven't got time to do the VacSwim and therefore you're not doing it’,” he said.

Classes were scheduled several days later, with a December program of afternoon classes reinstated to the 11 towns.

Education Minister Sue Ellery denied claims from the Nationals WA that the country early-start program had been cancelled completely.

In Parliament last month, Tourism Minister Paul Papalia responded to Ms Davies on behalf of the Education Minister.

He said the brief window between the end of term four and the start of the Christmas period meant the program had been rescheduled to January for most communities.

“Forty-one regional communities usually have a country early-start program. This will not occur in 2019,” he said.

“Thirty of those will have a VacSwim program in January.”

He said the Government was working with the 11 communities which did not have a VacSwim program in the hope lessons could be delivered in late December.

Agricultural Region MLC Darren West also denied there were any initial changes to the program and blasted WA Nationals for spreading a “dangerous fear campaign” about VacSwim.

“The WA Nationals are actively trying to convince the public that the Government has cut the VacSwim program and I am concerned this may lead to reduced enrolments this summer,” he said.

“It’s sad to see them reduced to this appalling behaviour. This fake news must stop immediately.”

Ms Davies said she welcomed the compromise for the communities but said the minister could have offered a December program across the State.

Mr Hook said having the program reinstated at Wickepin was a big win for the community.

“All I can say is it must have been reintroduced under political pressure,” he said.

“But we’re very happy for the community and that the facilities will be used.”

Wickepin pool manger Phillipa Ellis said she had tried to negotiate a different arrangement when she heard about the program cancellation.

“When they first cancelled it, it was just quite an aggressive ‘no, you're not having it’. We were on the phone to VacSwim and they said ‘no because of the school dates, it's not happening, you can travel’,” she said.

Ms Ellis said she was pleased to get half the program back, with the help of pressure on social media and in Parliament.

Nationals member for Roe Peter Rundle, who was contacted by communities in his electorate affected by program cuts, said this was another example of the minster’s incompetency.

“VacSwim lessons have been an important part of WA’s education and recreation for 100 years, so trying to shift and close programs by stealth was never going to get past families living and working in our regional communities.”

Wickepin mother of two Stefie Green said having the lessons back in town was a great result.

“I was quite flabbergasted when I heard the response ‘oh, you can just travel to Narrogin’ because that’s a 100km round trip for me and you’ve got all these other people further out that would need to travel almost double that,” she said.

“We’re already forced to travel to Narrogin two or three times a week depending on how many kids we've got and how many after-school things they want to do.”

“When in the metropolitan area they go ‘oh well, you can just drive for that week’, they’re not thinking about us already doing it all year around.”

“That’s why it’s really lovely to have some of these services in our own town.”

Melissa Martin, whose children also participated in the program, said she was grateful to have the program back but disappointed her daughter, who is over stage 9, will miss out.

“It’s a really important program,” she said.

“Kids need to know how to swim — it’s a lifesaving skill.”

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