How we're keeping children safe

Every year our lifeboat crews and lifeguards rescue hundreds of children. But it’s much more fun helping them stay out of trouble in the first place.
A Swim Safe programme taking place in Stoke Newington

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Walter Lee is a volunteer education presenter in Glasgow. ‘Some of the children don’t know what the tide is,’ he says.‘And some have never been to the coast.’

But most of them will visit the coast at some stage. And inland waterways can be just as treacherous. How can we help them stay safe? Through a mixture of education, partnerships and fun hands-on activities – and through the knowledge and commitment of our volunteers.

Our water safety and heritage messages reached more than 543,000 young people last year. Natalie O’Sullivan, RNLI Youth Education Manager for the north of England, says: ‘I’d really like to see a big shout out for our 407 education volunteers. They do such an amazing job.’

Education, education

We’re justly proud of the RNLI’s lifesaving heritage, which is celebrated at RNLI lifeboat stations, visitor centres and museums around our coasts. 

The RNLI’s Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh commemorates the life of Victorian Britain’s greatest heroine, who risked her life to save nine people from the wreck of the SS Forfarshire in 1838. The museum provides an immersive learning experience for children. Museum volunteers recreate the Grace Darling story with a Victorian shadow puppet show, and children make their own puppets with which to act out the story.

Grace Darling museum in Bamburgh, Northumberland. Two youngs boys looking at the displays.

Photo: Colin Davison

Two children enjoying the Grace Darling Museum

Meanwhile, back in the classroon, the Meet the Lifeguards schools’ programme takes our safety messages into the community. Lifeguard Supervisor Jason Walsh says: ‘By delivering the programme to coastal schools at the start of the summer, we are reinforcing key safety messages that will hopefully reduce the number of incidents that lifeguards have to deal with.’

And this April sees the launch of the RNLI’s new suite of online resources for youth leaders, teachers and parents – 40 downloadable activities to inspire the next generation.

Happy together

We can’t prevent drowning alone. So we work with many different organisations, including Swim England, Beach Schools South West and Haven Holidays, as well as police and fire rescue services, to keep children safe.

Schoolchildren visit Bembridge Lifeboat Station

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

Schoolchildren visit Bembridge Lifeboat Station

Broader child safety initiatives like Junior Citizen schemes also provide opportunities to share our water safety messages with children. The RNLI’s Youth Education Manager in London, Sam Johnson, explains how this works: ‘Year 5 or 6 children take the day out of school to visit a community space and learn how to keep themselves safe and be good citizens, as they transition from primary to secondary school. To cover our safety messages, we’ll dress the room up so it’s interactive and immersive, involving crew kit and posters.’

We were approached by Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds, who asked us to run workshops for museum staff. The staff deliver safety training on the RNLI’s behalf covering cold water shock and throw lines for canals, rivers and quarries. We have been helping to promote this through social media.

In Ireland, we are working with the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) to reach young people in sports clubs around the country – by the coast and inland. We also support Northern Ireland Water with its Water Bus – an exciting project involving a double-decker bus converted into an interactive primary school classroom. And across the island of Ireland we are delivering water safety messages to young people as part of the Bee Safe campaign.

Swim Safe programme taking place inland at West Resevoir, Stoke Newington

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

A Swim Safe programme taking place inland at West Resevoir, Stoke Newington

Immersive programmes

Swim Safe, our partnership with Swim England, has offered around 50,000 water safety activity sessions for children since it started in 2013. Hope Filby, Swim Safe’s Site Coordinator at Criccieth, says: ‘We’re teaching kids about water safety – giving them a real experience of open water. With more people on the beach, and in lakes and reservoirs, because of the hot weather, Swim Safe was more important than ever last year.’

Hit the Surf provides schoolchildren with an opportunity to get out of the classroom for a practical safety session on the beach with RNLI lifeguards. Children put on wetsuits and get into the water and they’re given plenty of safety tips and advice. In 2018, more than 9,000 children took part.

Working with bereaved families

Where loved ones have been lost to drowning, the RNLI works with families to help prevent similar tragedies happening elsewhere.

After 16-year-old Robbie Lea drowned while swimming with his friends in a lake at the Lee Valley Regional Park, his mum Sarah helped set up the Robbie Lea Water Safety Partnership. Organisations including the RNLI, the Canal and River Trust, Hertfordshire Crucial Crew and the Royal Life Saving Society UK are raising young people’s awareness of the dangers of swimming in lakes and rivers.

SeaSafe at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

SeaSafe at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

International partnerships

Children in some parts of Africa and Asia are at far greater risk of drowning than in the UK and Ireland. We’re working with international partners to try to reduce these risks.

Working with the Felix Fitness Foundation in Ghana, we have helped roll out its Aquatic Survival programme to schools. Teachers are being taught how to deliver water safety messages in the classroom and children are learning to stay safe as a result.

Our SeaSafe partnership with the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh provides a full-time lifeguard service on three beaches at Cox’s Bazar. SeaSafe also gives water safety education to local schools and communities, and teaches children to swim.

With our help, children are also learning to swim in Zanzibar. Traditionally, parents discourage their children from learning to swim. However, with the help of influencers like Haji Ali Haji, our partner the Panje Project is starting to win communities over.

‘The children come to the edge of the water and we give them water safety advice to help them to overcome their fear,’ says Haji Ali Haji, who is the project coordinator and a swimming instructor. ‘We get them to hold hands and then play some games and sport, which help them to feel more comfortable in the water.' 

Targetting hard-to-reach children

For cultural and social reasons, many children and young people are hard to reach. By working with schools and community groups we are finding ways to break down barriers. Here are a few examples:

Young Adults Programme

An innovative lifeboat rescue based education programme for college students teaches teamwork and leadership skills, with water safety weaved in. It has had some unexpected results.

Joint project lead Paul Gillions says: ‘Students have to come in to Dudley along one of the major canals. Work is now beginning on getting sponsorship for throw lines on the canalside – Dudley College working alongside the RNLI. Kirklees College is doing something similar. For an inland college it’s great to get something visible that identifies with the RNLI.’

Kumon Y'all

Kumon Y’all, an Islamic community group, approached the RNLI in 2017 for safety advice for a canoe expedition they were planning in Scotland. Since then, we’ve trained up four of their young men to deliver water safety messages in mosques and religious schools in West Yorkshire.

‘It’s having an impact in a community where we’ve had little engagement in the past,’ says RNLI Youth Education Manager Natalie O’Sullivan. ‘It’s been going for about a year and it’s doing really well. The water safety messages are pitched in a way that is suitable for the audience. It gives those involved skills for their CVs and for the workplace, and it’s helping to keep their community safe too. It’s a win-win situation.’

SAFE Birmingham

We are working with Birmingham City Council, the Canal and River Trust and the Royal Lifesaving Society on an ambitious programme to take water safety messages to every primary and secondary pupil in this ethnically diverse city by 2022.

Get involved

We are always looking for new volunteers to join our Youth Education Team – find a role that suits you!

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