Backbreaking education: Centre’s directives on schoolbags fall on deaf ears

Heavy schoolbags have serious health effects. Yet, in many cities, children carry almost half their body weight on their backs. The recent central government order to reduce schoolbag weight also looks unlikely to make much difference.

Priti, a Class VII student at an aided school in Bengaluru, hoists a schoolbag that looks like a ton of bricks on her back. She flares up when told that the central government has recommended reduction in the weight of schoolbags.

“Oh, really?” she asks, indignantly. “Then why didn’t our teacher tell us about it, and why am I carrying so many textbooks, pencil boxes, art material, sports equipment, bottles and boxes?”

A cursory examination of her schoolbag reveals the list that she blurted out. There were not just books, but many extraneous materials that did not appear really useful.

Last May, Justice Kirubakaran of Madras High Court declared that “children are not weightlifters and school bags are not loaded containers”. He referred to medical experts, concluding that on average, five or six-year-olds need about 11 hours of sleep each night. If they need to leave early to school, they have to sleep early. Less homework would help, which implicitly translates to lighter school bags.

Though the realisation seems to have dawned late on everyone, it still seems to be ‘better late yet never’, as no teacher, parent or student in Bengaluru’s schools seems to be even aware of the court order.

Centre directed states to comply

MHRD instruction to states and UTs

Late last November, in line with the Madras HC order, the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) instructed all states and union territories to “formulate guidelines” regulating teaching as well as the weight of schoolbags.

These guidelines should give the following instructions to schools, as per the MHRD circular:

  • In classes 1 and 2, no subjects except language and mathematics should be taught. Only language, EVS and math should be taught in classes III to V, in sync with the NCERT rules.
  • Moreover, children shouldn’t be asked to bring additional books and materials, and the weight of schoolbags should be within the prescribed limits.
  • The weight of schoolbags for students in classes I and II should not exceed 1.5 kgs, and homework should not be given. For classes III to V, bags can weigh upto 3 kgs only. For classes VI and VII the limit is 4 kgs, for classes VIII and IX it’s 4.5 kgs, and for class X the limit is 5 kgs.

Heavy bags damage muscles and nervous system

Studies have repeatedly shown the adverse health effects of heavy school bags. In 2016, a survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) under its Healthcare Committee, in ten Indian cities, found that 68 percent of school children under 13 years face the risk of spinal damage and irreversible back problems due to the burden. Some were suffering from “early slipped disc, spondylitis, spondylolisthesis, persistent back aches, early degeneration of spine and postural scoliosis (abnormal spine curvature),” according to the chairman of ASSOCHAM’s health committee, B K Rao.

The survey, based on responses of 2,500 children and 1,000 parents in major cities, found that most students carry over 20 textbooks and exercise copies along with sports and arts equipment, lunch boxes and water bottles. As a result, about 88 percent of schoolchildren between 7 and 13 years lug more than 45 percent of their body weight on their backs.

Doctors also emphasise that heavier school bags affect students’ nervous system, and overstress their muscles, ligaments and discs, damaging them irreparably. Some medics point out that children tend to develop a ‘forward head posture’, which makes them swing at the hip, so as to make up for the heavy weight of bags. In the long term, they develop imbalances.

Children’s weighty problems seem to to be heavier in private schools, according to a survey in Bengaluru. A 2004 study showed that female children suffer more dorsal and lower back ache from bags. It also indicated that shorter children are more prone to it than their taller peers.

Few states respond to centre’s directions

Delhi: Delhi was among the few states that acknowledged receiving the MHRD circular. On December 1st, the Delhi Directorate of Education issued a circular in line with MHRD’s instructions. The circular noted that school bags would cause serious threats to the vertebral column and knees in growing children, and that the weight is increased by “textbooks, guides, homework/classwork notebooks, rough work notebooks, water bottles, lunch box and sometimes the heavy bag itself”.

The circular also stated that the number of textbooks should not exceed that prescribed by the SCERT, NCERT and CBSE. Accordingly, there should be only three textbooks each for class I and II, and six each for class VI to X. Also, the time-table should be designed to facilitate lighter bags.

Lakshadweep: The education department circulated the centre’s directive to all its schools, strictly asking them not to burden children with heavy bags and to ensure that homework is not assigned to primary school children.

Tamil Nadu: After the Madras HC ruling of last May itself, the Director of Matric Schools sent a rather defensive circular pointing out that, with the trimester pattern, school bags were already quite thin! Every subject had a thinner textbook per trimester, instead of one big textbook for the whole year, the circular said. In fact, under the trimester system, the Tamil Nadu School Education Department had already specified the average schoolbag weight for different classes. For example, the schoolbag of a class VIII student shouldn’t weigh over 3.75 kg. But parents say the actual weight children carry is much more.

Karnataka: The state Department of Primary and Secondary Education is considering  reducing content in textbooks to bring down weight, based on research and expert committee reports. However, the next textbook revision can happen only after three years.

Meanwhile, a committee is being set up to visit schools and check for the usage of “non-prescribed” textbooks, as some complaints have been received about them.

Haryana: The education department here has taken no action, saying it has received no directive from the centre. 

Most other states too have still not finalised their guidelines as per the MHRD circular.

Schoolbag saga: A chronology till date

In 1993, the Yashpal Committee’s report ‘Learning without Burden’, highlighted the problem of heavy school bags. The Committee had been set up by the central government in 1992, to suggest ways to reduce academic burden on students. In 2005, the National Curriculum Framework talked of the “transactional and psychological load of curriculum” and made some recommendations. The recommendations were merely turned into circulars that were regularly ignored, while the physical and cognitive burden on students remained heavy.

The Children’s School Bag (Limitation on Weight) Bill, was introduced in Rajya Sabha in 2006, but was shelved later. The Bill had specified that a school bag shouldn’t weigh more than 10 percent of a student’s weight. As per the Bill, schools had to ensure that students carry appropriate bags, and use double straps to carry them. Teachers were to inform students in advance of the weight they should carry, teach them to pack their bags, and to keep them close to their bodies to distribute the weight.

On August 22, 2016, a couple of class VII students from Vidya Niketan School in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur created quite a sensation by threatening to go on a hunger strike. Rugved Raikwar and Paritosh Bhandekar told reporters at the local press club that they carried at least 16, and sometimes 18 or 20 books, for eight subjects everyday. Carrying bags weighing between 5 and 7 kgs was “exhausting”, especially as their classroom was on the third floor.

Strangely, the Maharashtra government had already issued a circular the previous year, asking schools to reduce the weight of bags, following Bombay High Court’s directives. The government had also warned that it would take “strict action” against school managements that didn’t comply. The “strict action”, of course, did not follow when schools flouted directives.

Still, just two days after the press conference, the boys’ school offered lockers for students to keep their books and other materials. This marked quite a success for students, though the school doesn’t seem to have done anything further since then.

Some states already had policies

One cannot fault states for not issuing guidelines or circulars. Like Maharashtra, states like Delhi and Telangana had issued circulars too.

In October 2016, the Delhi government had directed heads of both government and private schools to ensure lighter loads for students. The principals and teachers were asked to devise a “good timetable” that had a balance of academic subjects and co-curricular activities, so that children wouldn’t have to carry too many books on the same day.

In July 2017, the Telangana government’s Department of School Education (DSE) directed school managements to ensure that bags are lightened. Even for Class 10 students, the weight should not cross five kgs, said the directive. On studying the load borne by students in some districts, DSE had found that some bags could weigh upto 17 kgs. DSE also directed schools to inform students in advance about books to be carried, about the right kinds of school bags, and to leave out water bottles from bags.

With such state directives, schools in many cities may have got ministerial circulars. But the directives remained mostly on paper.

CBSE guidelines also ineffective

The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) had issued guidelines to its affiliated schools, way back in September 2016. These suggestions included:

  • The ideal weight of a school bag should be 10 percent of the child’s weight
  • Hard-bound textbooks should be avoided
  • Textbooks for class I-VIII can be academically heavy, yet lightweight
  • Schools should stick to a strict weekly timetable, so that a minimum number of texts and workbooks have to be carried
  • Teachers should keep students informed about exhaustion and other counter-effects of heavy bags. Muscles, shoulders and back might get affected and in extreme cases, the spinal cord or shoulder could get distorted
  • Students should be asked to repack their bags everyday
  • They should not carry unnecessary articles, textbooks or workbooks
  • Teachers should use alternative methods of teaching based on computer technology, so that textbooks can be reduced

However, there seems to be little follow-up by the CBSE to ensure that schools follow these guidelines.

Innovative experiments show the way

Though guidelines are routinely flouted, there is some good news, even if sporadic. For instance, in Chikkaballapura near Bengaluru city, the zilla panchayat issued an order to all government schools to observe a ‘No Bag Day’ two Saturdays a month.

In Kolkata, the Heritage School provided lockers to students, and The La Martiniere School for Girls gave students of classes I to VIII printed handouts, so as to avoid textbooks for all subjects except maths and a second language. At GM Upper Primary School in Kattampally, Kerala, a special van is sent to pick up bags from a particular spot in the mornings.

A central government press release dated July 2017 also noted advancements in some states. For example, about 50,000 schools in Maharashtra switched to online learning material using an app named Mitra.

So, the good news is that some steps have been taken to lighten schoolbags for children, but there is more, ‘heavy’, bad news. No one seems to have heard of the central government’s directive on reducing the weight of schoolbags. As students stagger under the burden, parents and schools are just hoping for stricter implementation and execution of policy directions.

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