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Dublin: 10 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019
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Opinion: The weighty issue of school bags needs to be addressed...

The Ministry for Education continues to ignore the damaging effects of an overweight backpack.

Christine Mills

I WAS AGHAST at the weight of books involved. When I took the delivery box of a five-kilo box, I was shocked when I realised that there was still more to come. At around that time, the excessive weight of school pupils’ bags surfaced in the letters page of the Irish Times. However, the topic sank without trace, prompting me to wonder whether TDs (or indeed journalists for that matter) have school age children.

Perhaps their kids don’t travel with heavy bags by public transport, foot or bike. Perish the thought that members of the Oireachtas lack interest in the day-to-day concerns of us ordinary mortals.

After the daily struggle of loading our daughter up like the proverbial packhorse, I did a little research into the school bag issue. A Working Party set up in 1997 by the Minister for Education and Science Micheál Martin TD had investigated the matter. I was wearily unsurprised that the subsequent report changed nothing. The backs of the nation’s children have continued to bend under hefty bags since then. Now if they had only taken a Ryanair zero tolerance approach, things might look a little different. I jest, but something meaningful does need to be done.

The technology panacea 

The writers of the 1998 report naively declared that information technology will solve many of the factors leading to heavy school bags. The report speculates that all of this educational integration ‘may have some impact on the subject of this report in the medium to long term’ without saying exactly how long ‘medium’ and ‘long term’ are.

The vagueness of the word ‘may’ is classic working party fudge and sounds more desperate than hopeful. Sixteen years after the report expounding its cheery theory about technology relieving the burden of paper carrying, kids still often lug more than the recommended ten percent of body weight. I have heard anecdotes about children literally keeling over under the weight of books. (This is only funny if your children are cartoon characters or they have body doubles for the school run.)

A major initiative called ‘Schools IT 2000’ was set up to integrate information and communication technologies into education. Several years down the line, having literally weighed the evidence, I do not see that this initiative has reduced the school bag weight by so much as a nanogram. It’s about time someone did something about the excess baggage on board.

Educational publishers

The writers of the report go on to address other possible solutions than IT, including collaboration between teachers and educational publishers. The sting in the tale seems to be that many people have known for years that schoolchildren are potentially suffering damage to their backs, but there is not enough will to find an effective solution. The Minister of Education, schools, publishers and parents could work out a way of lessening the burden.

According to the findings of the 1998 report, there will be a brave new world where children’s school bags are as light as feathers as ‘computer workstations, with networking facilities and multi-user capacity will complement “chalk and talk” in interactive learning’. A technological revolution has not replaced those sets of heavy textbooks. Some schools have tried to go down the ipad route but that brings a different set of problems. Whether this involves less reliance on workbooks by teachers, overhauling textbook production or the school co-ordinating homework and timetables more efficiently, then surely after all this time something could be done.

Hoping that technology will provide all the answers hasn’t got us very far and children are still storing up back problems for the future. Many parents will resort to buying two sets of schoolbooks to relieve the burden, which only lines the educational publishers’ pockets.

Christine Mills works in Dublin as a bookseller and blogs about books at Tales From the Landing Bookshelves and also jointly runs a craft blog called Curiously, Creative. She contributes to the members blog at Writing.ie and writes about her cultural activities for Irish News ReviewBook and cultural related tweets at @landing_tales

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Christine Mills

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