STUDENTS should not be punished because their parents chose food on the table over private swim lessons, the professional body representing health and physical education teachers says.
The comments follow Education Minister Grace Grace's stance that parents, not primary schools, were responsible for children acquiring swimming and water safety skills.
A national survey of parents showed cost was the biggest barrier to families when it came to swimming lessons.
Caroline Brooks is vice-president of the Australian Council of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (ACHPER) Queensland and has been a HPE teacher in the state system for almost 40 years.
Ms Brooks said there had been a steady decline in swimming competency since the early 1990s when Queensland schools moved away from delivering more comprehensive aquatic programs.
She said in the 1960s it had been deemed a high priority to help curb drownings.
"We would like to see it return as a priority. I think there should be a moral obligation to ensure all children are taught swimming and water safety.
"Cost is obviously the main factor. If it's food on the table or swimming lessons, families obviously have to go for food. But you can't punish the child.
"Schools see many students who come to school without breakfast. They are not ignored, so why should we ignore students whose parents can't afford swim lessons? Swimming is a vital life skill.''
Ms Brooks said up until 1992, when it was disbanded, there had been a physical education branch in the department. A large part of its duties was organising swimming programs and facilities at state schools.
"Now we are finding primary HPE teachers get limited support. We would like to see them gain more training and resources to improve the level of swim and safety lessons,'' Ms Brooks said.
"We need an audit of who is being taught, where and by whom. Looking at whether internal or external teachers are being used. We should all be working to the main aim of improving the situation and to do that we need to know what's happening now … it's not an insurmountable problem and it can be done,'' she said.
Ms Brooks said swim and survival programs had become a casualty of a crowded curriculum.
She said it was very difficult to fit everything in.
Foodbank Queensland CEO Michael Rose said Foodbank provided food assistance to more than 188,000 Queenslanders every month, 35 per cent of whom were children.
Mr Rose said school costs could be a struggle for many families, especially after Christmas and at the start of the year when new items were needed.
"For many parents, finding money for learn-to-swim fees would be impossible,'' he said.
Salvation Army spokesman Major Jeff Winterburn agreed that it would be "unthinkable'' for families battling to pay bills and feed and clothe children to add swimming fees to the list.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.