Speaking at a Seanad Commencement Debate on the 16th July, Senator Gerard Craughwell called on the Minister for Education and Science to develop policy on the weight of school bags. While there was a dearth of empirical research, Senator Craughwell said that there was ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that many children are carrying bags up to 50% of their body weight when the recommended guidelines suggest 10-15%. There was he said, "a worrying increase in reported cases of back related injuries in children and teenagers including scoliosis, with many children at risk of long term and permanent damage to their still developing spines" He called upon the Minister for Education and Science to commission research on every aspect of the weight that children are carrying to school each day.
He said the research must go beyond books and must examine the sports equipment, musical instruments and other items being carried to support extracurricular. He agreed that this topic is not new and neither is it a problem specific to Ireland yet no effective solution to the problem has been identified and introduced. It is an issue which has effectively fallen between stools with the Department deferring to the schools and the schools putting the responsibility back onto parents.
The issue was first raised in 1997 when Minister Micheál Martin established The Working Group on the Weight of School Bags which reported in 1998 with an impressive list of recommendations. The Department responded by sending out a circular letter to both primary and secondary schools advising them of the report's recommendations and saying that it was "incumbent on school authorities from a health and safety viewpoint to identify the problem where it exists an take whatever steps are appropriate to deal with it" The circular was re-issued to schools again in 2005. Senator Craughwell said that it was a scandal that there has been no evaluation of what measures had been taken by schools in the last seventeen years despite numerous Parliamentary Questions in the Dáil to which "the same stock answer" was provided. He said that "the lack of action to deal with this issue has the potential to open the door to compensation claims of massive proportions" and that if workers in any sector of our economy were "presenting with similar symptoms as a result of having to lift heavy weights, a major health and safety investigation would be put in place and that as adults we have the protection of the 1989 Health Safety and Welfare at work Act but children, the most precious asset this State possesses , have no such protection".
Senator Craughwell said that there had been successful and ingenious commercial initiatives such as "Booksplits" the brainwave of mother of four Margo Fleming from Wicklow which is a commercially available alternative to assist schools in reducing the weight of school books to half their size. He also said that some schools are replacing text books with Ipads and tablets or providing lockers to store books in schools. However there are still some schools where children are a carrying in excess of 15kg in texts and copy books. This is a particular problem for first to third years who have up to 13 subjects. Based on internationally accepted best practice, weight guidelines are 3.5kg for up to 12 years and 6.3 kg for 17 year old boys.
Senator Craughwell believes that issuing guidelines to schools has manifestly failed and that children have suffered serious injuries as a result. He feels that it is now incumbent upon the Department to take another approach, an approach involving all stakeholders; children, parents, schools, and book publishers to agree a standard regulated system which would be implemented in all schools and monitored by the Department of Education. So while school may be out for summer, parents and young people are already getting ready to go back to school and along with the high cost of kitting them out, the ultimate cost to their long term health and welfare must finally be taken seriously. Craughwell called upon everyone interested in this important topic to contact him so that he may continue to lobby on this issue.