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Free swimming – A need for a more strategic approach

The purpose of this short report is to review the available evidence about the impact of the provision of free swimming by local authority sport and recreation services.

This research was conducted by Prof Fred Coalter at the University of Stirling on behalf of NHS Health Scotland.


Why abolish entrance charges for swimming?

Entrance charges are presumed to be a barrier to participation and free swimming is needed to achieve some or all of the following:

  • Social inclusion and social equity.
  • Health benefits derived from increased physical activity.
  • Engaging young people and developing interests in other sports/activities.
  • Improve standards in swimming (a minority of schemes).

This report reviews the approaches to free swimming adopted by different areas including:

  • Open access for certain groups (young people, over 60s).
  • Targeted at specific groups and times
  • Targeted free-swimming lessons.

Quality of Evidence

The report established that there is a lack of robust and comparable information available on free swimming and therefore there are only limited general conclusions about the impact of free-swimming initiatives that can be drawn from the review.

Impact of Free Swimming

All schemes record substantial initial increases in aggregate usage (although tends to be most evident during school holidays). Balance between increased frequency by current participants and new users are not clear. As swimming is already a popular activity it is possible that those attracted are more likely to be existing participants.


It is unlikely that abolishing entrance charges alone will lead to sustained increases in swimming among certain target groups. Charges are only one component of a complex set of factors. Attempts to increase swimming participation must be part of a broad and diverse strategy – more effective and more efficient targeting; a consideration of who best responds to, and benefits from, free swimming; an appropriate balance between free swimming and swimming lessons; systematic attempts to increase frequency and retain new participants; longer term strategies to move from free swimming/free swimming lessons to ‘affordable swimming’.

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