Understanding swimming awards
How do swimming awards work and what do they mean? Let's take a look...
As a swimming teacher you can choose to award using the STA award scheme, Swim England (previously the ASA) or create your own scheme. The awards are aimed at all ages, from babies to competitive swimmers, and recognise a child's ability to perform water skills, demonstrate an understanding of water safety and swim distances. The STA and Swim England schemes have a lot in common - we award using the Swim England scheme because for us it offers the best range to suit our swimmers, so I'll focus on that scheme for this article.
Types of Awards
Discovery Ducklings and Ducklings awards: These introduce water skills and water safety to babies and toddlers during their first few years of swimming. I don't tend to focus too much on these awards for very young swimmers on the grounds that all children develop so differently, start swimming at different ages and bring such different experiences to their first lesson, but I find them great for swimmers aged 3 years and up;
Learn to Swim Stages 1-7: These awards are designed to teach water skills, water safety and the four main strokes. The skills include floating, submersion, sculling, forward rolls and push and glides;
Rainbow Distances: These include the Puffin badge (5m using floatation equipment) and then distances from 5m - 5000m without aids;
Stroke Awards: Children can also achieve 5m, 10m and 25m in each of the four strokes when they meet set standards over the distance;
Water Skills Awards: These six awards teach traditional skills including floating, submersion, treading water, alongside the four strokes;
Swimming Challenge Awards: There are four challenge awards: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Honours, and these combine a distance swim (timed for Gold and Honours) with water skills;
Speed Awards: There are bronze, silver and gold times for each stroke, performed in 20m or 25m pool;
"I Can" Awards: A child who has mastered a new skill (including blowing bubbles and jumping in) can be rewarded for just that achievement with these awards;
Alpha Step Awards: The broad curriculum covered by these awards work well for an older beginner or a swimmer with SEND;
There are also a range of other awards, including those for competitive swimmers, water polo, synchro and diving.
Why give swimmers awards?
A national scheme helps clubs and swim schools across the country to maintain the same standards;
Awards can motivate and encourage swimmers, helping them to identify where their next steps are;
Achieving an award can be a proud moment, particularly if it took courage and stamina to achieve;
A new award keeps parents up to date with their child's swimming ability;
Awards are inclusive - if a swim school makes use of the full range of awards, a child can achieve a different award each term as long as they put in the effort;
Some awards offer summative assessment (a child is given an opportunity to be assessed once at the end of a series of lessons, for example for a timed or distance swim), and others lend themselves more to formative assessment (Water Skills and Learn to Swim awards require a swimmer to practise and reinforce each taught skill several times over the terms). Both forms of assessment help the teacher to tune in to how a child is progressing;
For newly qualified swimming teachers, awards offer structure for a term of lessons and channel their expectations.
What are the drawbacks of using an awards scheme?
Some swim schools are over reliant on a narrow awards stucture, which can limit the swimmer. If a child needs to pass every skill on an awards checklist to progress to the next swimming level they can be held back - a child who is very strong and able but nervous about jumping in could be held at a lower level for terms;
All teachers have different interpretations - some teachers follow every requirement to the letter, whereas others are more lenient about the skills they tick off, which means that a Level 3 swimmer from one swim school might not be as strong as a Level 2 swimmer from another. We insist on a child passing every skill and explore alternative awards rather than passing a child who isn't ready. We also insist that children perform distance awards using well executed, recognisable strokes - some swim schools let a swimmer get away with doggy paddle even for 100m;
All swimming pools are different - some are very shallow, some are shorter than others - a child who has achieved an award in one pool might not be able to achieve the same things in a deeper or longer pool;
Parents can over-rely on awards, achieving a Gold Challenge or a Level 7 can signal the end of a child's swimming lessons, when in fact the child could benefit from the stamina, health and fitness and social benefits of continuing with swimming - or swimming could provide employment throughout a swimmer's college and university years.
Some thoughts on swim school designed schemes.
Some swim schools choose to design their own awards scheme, perhaps because they feel that the ones offered by the STA or Swim England don't suit their needs or teaching pool. Although this can seem like a great idea, it can limit swimmers - if they choose to move swim schools, the standards and expectations will inevitably be different, and it isn't quite as easy to place them in the right group at the new club. A set of awards for certain age groups or specific achievements can work really well, but it's hard to find the balance between offering a range of awards and diluting the structure of the scheme.
There are of course the arguments of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation - a child will always be best motivated by their own desire to improve - that said, I do believe that a swim school benefits from the structure an awards scheme can bring. We use a range of Swim England awards, and maintain high standards when we assess our swimmers - for a child, an award can be a huge milestone, and we like to celebrate that achievement.