Ever since completing his first mile swim at age 10, Antony White, franchise owner of the British Swim School in downtown Chicago, has had a lifelong love for swimming. While still living in England, White visited the country’s first private swim school in Manchester. Built in 1981 in the basement of Rita Goldberg’s home, the swim school offered lessons to eager swimmers. Soon after the 1995 opening of the Coral Springs location in Florida, White decided to join the British Swim School team as a reception manager in 1997 and became a partner in the business in 2004.
The swim school’s technique emphasizes survival skills as a necessary first step to entering the water. Their programming includes parents and baby swim lessons, toddler swimming lessons, and even classes tailored for adults. With students ranging from three months old to 93 years old, the British Swim School believes everyone should be given the chance to learn to love the water. I interviewed Anthony White to get his insights on the British Swim School. Here’s our conversation:
How did you become a British Swim School franchise owner?
I was actually instrumental in the whole franchise process. We’d grown very rapidly into several states and Rita Goldberg, the founder, decided that the time was right to franchise the business. We went through the very lengthy process of detailing every aspect of our business, from answering the phones, to how we ran our business, to the teaching specifics of each class, and our first franchisee came on board in 2011. Bonnie was a manager at our Germantown, MD location who embraced British Swim School and everything that we believed in and bought that territory from us. There are now thirty five franchised locations in five states.
While we’d been setting up the franchise network I’d spent a lot of time travelling between DC and Chicago and South Florida. I’d loved the face to face interaction with customers at the school and felt I was losing that with the way the company was growing. I decided I wanted a lifestyle change and so I stepped down from my role as one of the franchisers and became a franchisee. I’m now able to do what I love – spend time on site working with students and parents. After fifteen years of living in South Florida, Chicago is now my new home. And I have no regrets whatsoever.
You just signed a lease for your first brick-and-mortar location in Skokie, IL, how does it feel to have a fixed location for your programming?
Finding an empty indoor pool is like finding hen’s teeth – it rarely, if ever, happens. It was just a case of timing – a chance conversation with a scuba school in Orland Park (someone who we’d worked with previously in Florida) tipped me off to a scuba school whose owners were retiring.
What are you most looking forward to at the new location?
You’ve no idea how excited I am! Having our own British Swim School location in Skokie, where we can dictate water temperature, hours and offer the programs and other activities that we want is more than I could have wished for. I’m very lucky that the relationships we have developed with the facilities we use in downtown are strong and secure and I look forward to these growing over the coming years.
There’s nothing quite like having your own location though. We’re a professional organization, with superb, highly trained instructors and to have a location we can use whenever we like will mean that we can offer a more varied schedule. We’re planning on developing our special needs program as well as spending time working with the more fearful students in a quieter, more private setting.
Can you tell me about the programs that you offer? Are there any programs unique to your location?
Special needs (or adapted aquatics) programming is an area we’ve been working on very much in the past couple of years. Autistic children, for example, are naturally drawn to water – and without water survival lessons are at much greater risk of being involved in a drowning incident.
We cater for every level of swimmer, from total beginner to team – we’re launching our British Swim School team, the Barracudas, this September at our Gold Coast location.
Our focus, however, is, and always will be, on survival. Drowning is the number one cause of accidental death in children under five years of age – and it’s totally preventable! If a child can save it’s own life then it stands a much better chance of survival if he or she falls into a pool.
With a strong orthodox Jewish presence in Skokie we plan on offering segregated lessons on Sundays – this is something that our Manchester, England school has been offering very successfully for a while now and we plan to continue this legacy.
How does the training of new instructors work? What type of experience are they required to have before they begin instructing classes?
I very much believe on hiring the right type of personality over experience. Teaching for four hours in warm water is exhausting, and not for everyone.
If a candidate interviews well both on dry land and in the water (part of their water interview is to ensure that they actually can swim) we invite them to start training. We give them a section of our teaching manual to study and they must take a written test before they start training. If they don’t pass this test we don’t train them.
We train our staff for a minimum of 40 hours – a combination of observation and hands-on training focused solely on our survival program. Then we train them on our higher level classes and finally, after three months of employment with us, we will invite them to train in our Swimboree and Tadpole classes.
Communicating with parents in these levels and explaining why we do the exercises and routines that we do is the key to the success of our program. This is my favorite area of teaching – I’ve been teaching these levels for seventeen years now and would happily teach them all day long.
Do you instruct any classes? If so, which ones? What is the youngest age you’ve taught?
I teach occasionally now – far less than I used to. There just aren’t enough hours in a day. I usually take the one-on-one children that are having a tough time in class, or I’ll sub occasionally for an instructor. I train the baby classes too when I can – I never pegged myself as a teacher but just love it! Unfortunately I cannot grow my business and ensure the quality of our program remains consistent across all locations when I’m in the water.
I’m going to be teaching a lot more with the opening of Skokie – I’ll be using these classes to train a whole new group of instructors with the aim of eventually stepping out of the water to be able to spend more time with the parents pool-side.
Intake for our Tadpole and baby classes starts at three months and I’ve had several children this age start with me. It amazes parents (and still continues to amaze me) just what a six month old child is capable of. Clara, one of my Lakeshore East students, is only seven months old and can already roll over onto her back and float independently.
BSS emphasizes water survival skills before beginning swimming skill development, can you elaborate on how this approach works?
Nobody will ever convince me that not teaching a child to save it’s own life as a primary goal is viable or acceptable. On it’s back a child can breathe and call for help, giving them valuable minutes until rescued. With the ability to save your own life comes a level of confidence and lays a foundation (and creates a level of confidence) which makes teaching propulsion and stroke development far easier and less stressful. If a child gets tired in one of our higher levels they have the ability to roll over onto their back, enabling them to rest and, more importantly, breathe.
Do you think this approach is better than just jumping right into swimming lessons?
Absolutely – although most modern swim programs will have some sort of focus on survival as part of their program.
What do you think makes this teaching approach most unique? And why?
We’ve been teaching children to back-float for over thirty years – long before it was ever thought of as a survival technique. Now, most swim schools include some form of back-floating as part of their program. True, it’s difficult to train instructors to teach this method, and that’s why some schools steer away from it.
I have a fantastic team of instructors and office staff who believe wholeheartedly in what we do – and I think this is part of what makes us unique – the level of investment that they put into the job is far more than in many other industries and it shows in what we do – We’re a strong team that continues to grow!
What are the benefits of the swimming program for kids? More specifically, what are the emotional, social, and physical benefits of learning water survival and swimming skills through the BSS?
Apart from reducing the risk of drowning it boosts the child’s whole development – a study done a few years ago showed that children who swam consistently from infancy were significantly stronger and more coordinated than those who did not.
Studies over many years have also shown that swimming improves motor and cognitive development and have proven that starting swimming lessons early builds social, emotional, physical and intellectual capital.
Swimming also strengthens social confidence and enhances neurological development and the tactile resistance of water establishes a deeper emotional bond because the parent and child are face to face, skin to skin, touching in the water.
Do you have a British Swim School in your area? Will you be signing you and your little one up for baby swimming lessons? Let us know in the comments section!