Time to break the back of the heavy schoolbag debate

February 25th, 2017 7:10 AM

By Southern Star Team

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Our children are suffering because we are too slow to embrace technology that can replace heavy textbooks, reports Marie Nolan

RANDOM weight checks of bags should be introduced in schools to monitor how heavy they are, a government TD has said.

According to Fine Gael’s Deputy Jim Daly, this would be a good way of starting the awareness and education process surrounding what is a serious issue for both primary and secondary level students.

Deputy Daly, chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, is working to put the national spotlight on the issue as well as to bring about reform. ‘The feeling six or seven years ago was that with the onset of technology this issue would become obsolete. Clearly that isn’t the case.

‘It didn’t work for a variety of reasons. We’ve reverted back to text books,’ he noted.

Deputy Daly is especially familiar with the situation in Estonia – where his wife Virge is from. ‘They are extremely progressive when it comes to things like ‘e schools’ but still they are grappling with the issue just like us. The future is not going to wipe this away.’

Osteopath Nathalie Rousseau, who has a practice in Bandon,  is only too aware of the state of school children’s backs. It’s something she sees all the time while examining her patients who come to her for a variety of other conditions. ‘Nearly every child I see has neck pain or a compressed back. They also have knee, hip and shoulder problems. But they don’t complain as they feel it’s almost normal.’

She described as ‘shocking’ the weight of some books and says heavy bags can affect the shapes of the spine. ‘When you consider the books may be used for two or three years, it’s not very considerate of our children’s health.’ Some cases have been so serious that on her recommendation, parents have invested in two sets of text books – one for school and another for home, to relieve their child’s pain. ‘Naturally this is an expensive option but the parents would have done anything. Government action must be taken as a matter of priority,’ she told The Southern Star.

She also suggests that youngsters share books where it is practical, or that lockers are available to all children in all schools. Aine Lynch, chief executive of the National Parents Council (Primary), has called for a review of how much text books are needed and feels primary education should be experiential and group-learning.

The optimum weight of a bag should be 10% of the child’s weight, according to Nathalie – already the rule of thumb in many European countries.

‘That means a child weighing 40kg could have a bag weighing 4kg – but in most cases the bags weigh between 8kg and 9kg,’ says Nathalie.

Alan Foley, principal of St Patrick’s Boys NS in Skibbereen, said his school has tried several initiatives in the past – and will continue to do so – to lighten the schoolbag load. This has included the use of memory sticks by students as well as encouraging students to type work at home and then print it out.

It’s an issue that he and his staff are very much aware of, due to feedback from parents.

School bag weight is especially relevant for his 213 pupils as they operate a ‘Walk to School’ programme from different points in the town – from a distance of a quarter of a mile.

Some solutions they’ve introduced include an ‘active homework’ programme – 10 minutes of physical activity which doesn’t require any text book being brought home. They are currently looking at the idea of a ‘Google classroom’ where students would have a gmail account allowing for online work, but Mr Foley said a balance is required between technology and books.

Maria Holmes, principal of Abbeystrewry NS, conducted a few random weight checks of bags after being contacted by The Southern Star on the matter.

As would be expected, the higher up the class, the heavier the bag, although she felt that weighty bags and bulky lunch boxes weren’t helping the situation.

Being a country school, her students don’t usually have far to walk with their bags but it is something they are aware of.

Deputy Daly said he didn’t feel this was a legislative matter. However, through the Department of Education, he hopes to issue schools around the country with recommendations on schoolbag weight before the end of the year.


Easing the burden on their backs 

Buy a bag in a light material that is designed for a child – not an adult.

Make sure the straps are wide and padded and carried on both shoulders at all times. If possible, go for a style that also has a strap around the waist.

The size of the bag is important – it should be as long as its wearer’s torso and should come to around 5cm above the waist.

The position of the bag is key – it should be worn close to the body.

The fashion, Nathalie says, is unfortunately to let bags hang loosely on the body, which is not a good practice.

Bags on wheels are a good idea – but only if they don’t need to be lifted upstairs; in which case it’s more damaging than a regular bag, as these styles are usually heavier. 

 – As recommended by Bandon-based osteopath Nathalie Rousseau

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