DUBLIN school girl Zena Donnelly, nine, is looking forward to starting fifth class next month — but dreading lugging her school bag around.
“Depending on how much homework we get, my bag can get really heavy,” says Zena, who shot to fame when she sang on the Point stage with Whitney Houston.
Zena, who tested out some bags for us says: “If we get homework in every subject, my bag is much heavier going home; if we don’t get any, it’s a lot lighter.”
With the average primary student’s school bag now tipping the scales at 7kg, Zena’s bag — stuffed with all her school books, pencil case, sports gear and lunch box — weighs around 20% of her body weight. Mum, Darina, is concerned about the long term effects on her young daughter’s back.
“I’m concerned about the weight of Zena’s school bag,” she says. “That’s why I insist on buying a wheeled bag so she can pull it along rather than carry it to and from school.”
“I think wheelie bags are the coolest,” adds Zena, who’s currently starring in Annie Junior at The Helix. “But only a few people in my class have them — backpacks are the most popular.”
Despite international guidelines recommending that school-goers carry no more than 10% of their body weight, studies show that one in three here regularly haul over twice that.
“Lifting a bag that is too heavy causes immediate strain on the spine,” warns Dr Attracta Farrell of Clondalkin and Athenry Chiropractic Clinics.
“The longer a child carries that load, the more severe the damage.
“A growing child should limit the weight they carry in a school backpack to no more than 10% of their body weight. That’s only around 4-5kg for a 40-50kg student, which quickly adds up through their numerous text books, pencil cases and lunch boxes.”
“In an ideal world, children wouldn’t have to carry heavy school bags at all,” says chartered physiotherapist Margaret Hanlon, vice-president of the Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists (ISCP).
“Heavy bags encourage poor posture leading to a muscle imbalance which may have to be rectified in later life. The best advice is for children not to carry anything they don’t have to, and wear their schoolbag properly using both straps.”
As the rest of us go paperless with eReaders and iPads though, why are our children still forced to lug weights outlawed in the workplace? One school, Coláiste Choilm in Ballincollig, Co Cork, is leading the way with an iPad pilot scheme for first years. But the Department of Education says it has no plans to force other schools to follow suit.
“It is a matter for each individual 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,” says spokesperson Sarah Miley.
“The Department is aware that positive action has been taken by many schools on these issues – including the provision of lockers and — in the case of second-levels schools — the arrangement of the timetable into double class periods and the coordination of homework by subject teachers.”
However, with a quarter of primary students already developing back problems due to their bulging school bags, Bing Crosby’s An Apple for the Teacher could be about to take on whole new meaning.
“More and more Irish schools are moving towards IT-based learning“, says Larry Fleming, spokesperson for the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN).
“As this develops, it’s going to significantly reduce the weight of school bags.
“However, iPads are very expensive so schools may be reliant on getting sponsorship,” concedes the principal of Ballinamere National School in Tullamore.
“We had a very kind benefactor from Apple provide us with iPads for all our special needs students — and it’s working superbly.
“Reducing the weight of school bags should be a collaborative effort between the Department and schools.”
Meanwhile, healthcare solicitor Liam Moloney warned that the State could face “thousands of future compensation claims” if schools fail to comply with the department’s recommendations on reducing the weight of school bags.
“Nobody wants children to suffer back pain or injury so this is something that the Department of Education and Skills should immediately address,” he says.
For now, teaching kids to carry their school bags properly could be the most important lesson they learn all year.
“Education is key,” adds Margaret Hanlon, spokesperson for Back-Up, an over-18s Aviva Health Insurance service providing access to 155 chartered physiotherapists nationwide.
“In my experience, it’s easier to influence them at a junior level before bad habits are formed. Parents should encourage their kids to lift their bag on to a table or chair first to put it on, wear it symmetrically using both straps, use the waist strap if it has one, and not to wear it for any longer than they have to,” she advises.
“If it’s a wheeled bag, make sure they keep their body straight while pulling it so the spine isn’t twisted. Keeping your children as fit as possible will also help strengthen the spine so it’s better able to take weight of the bag.”