Thursday, 16 July 2015
Weight of Schoolbags
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for being here. While schools might be out for summer, parents and students will soon be preparing to return in September. The issue of the weight of schoolbags remains unresolved not for another year, but for another decade. The issue was raised in the Dáil as far back as 1996, and the then Minister, Ms Breathnach, gave the exact same reply as the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, gave in 2014. Both said it was a matter for local school management and that circular letters to this effect, incorporating the recommendations of the working group on the issue, were sent to schools in 1998 and 2005.
The time lag is notable. The 1998 report generated two circular letters, both with the same content and both deferring to local school management. In the meantime, an entire generation of schoolchildren have struggled to and from school with schoolbags weighing up to two stone in some cases. The Minister of State can correct me if I am wrong, but it appears that since the working group reported in 1998 there has been no follow-up, no examination on if and how its recommendations are being implemented, and 17 years later there is still no comprehensive current research.
Osteopaths, physiotherapists and doctors report an ever-increasing number of incidents of schoolchildren presenting with serious neck, shoulder and back strain due entirely to the weight of schoolbags. A school principal who survey pupils found the junior students carry the heaviest weight as they have 13 subjects. In that case, the first year students were carrying in excess of 15 kg in textbooks and copybooks.The recommended weight for children of 12 years is 12% of their body mass, which would average at 3.5 kg of textbooks for 13 year olds and 6.3 kg for 17 year old male students. The detrimental and long-term effects on the still developing spine of a 12 year old carrying five times the recommended weight is of serious concern to many parents and an issue of national importance requiring a national and co-ordinated response. Mr. Liam Moloney, a Naas-based health care solicitor, is on record as saying that the failure of many school managers to deal with it was one of the most serious issues of our time and "the State could face thousands of future compensation claims from school children who suffer back injuries if their School Managers have not complied with the recommendations made by the Department of Education." This issue could leave the Army deafness and other compensation claims in the ha'penny place. More important, in letting this situation run on without proper checks and balances and systematic review by the Department of Education and Skills, we are damaging the health of the most precious asset the State possesses, namely, the health and welfare of our young people. If employees in any sector were presenting with such symptoms on so large a scale, a major health and safety investigation would be put in place.
There have been successful and ingenious commercial initiatives, such as Booksplits, the brainwave of mother of four Ms Margo Fleming from Wicklow, which is now a commercially available alternative that reduces the weight of text books by half. Alternatively, some schools are replacing books with tablets, some have lockers and some do not, with some allowing children to leave books in school while others do not.
Will the Minister of State revisit this issue as a matter of urgency, commission research on every aspect of it and put in place a system that would guarantee a uniform application of unequivocal regulations? Issuing guidelines to schools has manifestly failed and it is now time for another approach.
I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position on the matter of the weight of schoolbags. It is an issue that most of us present have an interest in, but certainly we all have memories of carrying bags on our shoulders on the way to school. The Senator has good shoulders, so I am sure that he was able to carry his. There have been some improvements and weights have been reduced, but he is right about it still being an issue. Perhaps someone will invent a schoolbag that is cooler when not being carried on a shoulder, as the design of schoolbags is part of the solution, too.
The Department and I are well aware of the potential problems caused by the weight of schoolbags. In this regard, some years ago the Department set up a working group to examine the issue. The group's terms of reference were to consider the issue of heavy schoolbags, the extent of the problem, the factors that contributed to the problem and possible implications of the problem, particularly for the health of pupils. The report of the working group, which was presented in July 1998, recognised that many of the solutions to this issue belonged at local school level and made various recommendations, such as the provision of lockers, active liaison with parents and, in the case of second level schools, co-ordination of homework by subject teachers and the arrangement of the timetable into double class periods.
The working group also found that there was a need to heighten awareness of the potential health hazards posed by excessively heavy schoolbags. In this regard, my Department initiated an awareness-raising campaign by disseminating the working group's report with an accompanying circular to all primary and post-primary schools. My Department issued further circulars to all primary and post-primary schools in 2005 to highlight the potential health hazard of overweight schoolbags and to outline a range of local measures that could be put in place to help alleviate the problem.
Ultimately, it is a matter for each school to choose those measures that would be most suited to its individual needs and that fit with how the school organises teaching and learning. The parents also have a role in this decision-making process. Not all of them feel empowered to play it, but they should be involved in decision making in every school.
There are decisions that can be made at local school level. The use of digital resources by teachers and students in schools is increasing. While conventional textbooks are still widely used, a number of schools have introduced or are considering introducing e-books and other digital resources to enhance students' work in school and at home. Schools can use the book grant scheme to purchase a range of digital resources relevant to the curriculum. These may include student subscriptions to online maths or reading programmes, school site licences or app downloads.
The Department's "Guidelines for Developing Textbook Rental Schemes in Schools" provide practical advice to primary and post-primary schools on how rental schemes can be established and operated. These guidelines highlight the advantages of the use of digital media, including e-books, to enhance teaching and learning in schools. Among these advantages is reducing the weight of schoolbags. However, the decision to use personal digital devices such as laptops or tablets is a matter for the board of management of a school. Where the introduction of new technology is planned, it is advisable that there should be consultation with members of the school community, including parents. The cost and other implications must be fully considered by the board of management before a decision is made. In some cases, the cost can be quite high. Some schools are proactive in meeting costs. I hope to see an increase on that front in the years to come. We all agree that we need to see more such work.
I thank the Senator for the opportunity to outline to the House the position on the matter of the weight of school bags. It is improving, but most people are still concerned about it.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I am concerned that we are pushing things down to boards of management. A recent high-profile case regarding the abuse of a lady while she was a student in a primary school in Cork came back to bite the Department and the Government. As the Legislature, we have a responsibility. We cannot shed it to boards of management. We cannot offload it to subject teachers or parents. We must put directives in place.
I understand the Senator's point, but schools are run by boards of management and are separate from the Department. This is a fact of life. If we were to remove all of that power, a different discussion would be held. The best thing that the Department can do is work with the schools and give guidelines, advice and support. We could probably fight for more resources to increase the offering to schools, but their boards of management are in charge of what happens in them. We provide circulars, directions and so on.
Parents need to realise that they have as much power as anyone else involved in the school in terms of making decisions. They need to become fully involved in that process. When I visit some schools, I see where parents who have worked in certain companies have had an influence in terms of the schools' equipment. However, other offerings are available to schools, and it is for each to decide what it wants. Naturally, as more resources become available in the years ahead, the Department will increase what we can do, but the decision in question is a local one. While I recognise and share the Senator's concerns, we are all involved in the solution.