Weight of Schoolbags: Discussion

I welcome Dr. Sara Dockrell, assistant professor in Trinity College Dublin and chartered physiotherapist, Mr. Paul Beddy, director of the National Parents Council Post-Primary, and Ms Áine Lynch, chief executive officer of the National Parents Council Primary, to the meeting of the joint committee. I thank the three witnesses for taking the time to attend and bring us their expertise on this issue. It is very much appreciated.

Before we commence, in accordance with procedure, I am required to draw attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. If, however, they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I also wish to advise the witnesses that any submission or opening statements made to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting.

I understand the witnesses will make short presentations. I invite Dr. Dockrell to begin her presentation to the committee.

Dr. Sara Dockrell

I thank the committee for inviting me to speak. This is not a brand new issue but something that has been highlighted for quite some time. The issue of carrying schoolbags affects large numbers of children in Ireland and around the world. It is a global issue. One of the factors that tends constantly to raise its head is the weight of schoolbags. It is where most of the emphasis of the research is but there is a lot of evidence, including our own, to support the fact that the weight of the schoolbag is not the main factor when it comes to causing musculoskeletal pain in children.

Some countries have established guideline weights, and they have actually legalised them. Throughout Europe and in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, the guideline weight tends to be around 10% of the child's body weight. However, there is increasing evidence that 10% of body weight is not a reliable measure. In the current climate of obesity in children, that weight is also very unrealistic because 10% of a child who is obese is not a fair method of assessment of how much he or she would be able to carry.

From our research, we concluded that there is no merit in establishing guidelines for children based on the schoolbag weight alone, so we looked at other issues and what could be done. We took a more proactive outlook on this and looked at other aspects of the schoolbag, such as the type of bag, how it is carried and when it is carried.

Another factor that came out of our research was that there is very little evidence to identify whether parents are aware of the schoolbag issues. We recently got ethics approval to do a study on parental awareness of what their children are carrying and how they are carrying it. There is no evidence that parents have ever received information about this topic, and we believe that if parents received information they would be better informed and they might be able to tackle the issue in a much more positive and proactive way.

One of the positive factors regarding schoolbag carriage is that children require exercise and movement to develop in a healthy way. The carrying of a schoolbag is considered to be moderate to vigorous activity for children. As is widely known, children are supposed to have 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a day. Looking at this in a positive way, carrying a schoolbag could in fact be considered to be part of a child's daily activity. This is an important point at the moment, where children are very sedentary. This could be seen as a very positive thing.

I am very keen to try to heighten awareness of the issues in a very well structured way so that parents, teachers and all the stakeholders who are involved in this process have a better understanding of what carrying a schoolbag is about.

Mr. Paul Beddy

I want to thank the Chairman and the committee for getting this topic onto the agenda. Dr. Dockrell was part of the original group that reported back in 1998. The report has been out there in the ether since and very little has happened, so this is an ideal opportunity to try to kick off the debate again. I am on the National Parents Council, post-primary. I am chair of the sub-committee that develops policy documents on a range of issues, and as part of the briefing documentation we provided our policy document on the weight of schoolbags. This reflects support for the initiative taken with the report of 1998, and it has appealed for the past 17 years for a proper implementation process.

In my submission I have said that in fairness to the Department, under the terms of the report it has sent out several circulars over the years requesting implementation. Unfortunately, requesting implementation and asking schools to be more aware of the subject matter is not amounting to a heap of beans. It is the single most common topic that we are contacted by parents about on an annual basis, particularly starting in September, which is the first time many parents experience what their children are expected to carry home. By pure coincidence a parent in Donegal was on the radio on Monday, on Ocean FM, saying that his 12 or 13 year old son was carrying close to 12 kg in his first year. He put forward all the arguments as to what can be done about it, referencing that the report had been published in 1998.

In the past year Senator Gerard Craughwell, in a statement he issued, referenced that there should be action and that there should be some sort of study undertaken to see what schools were doing about it. We think that we need to get a grouping together, including all the stakeholders, with the report on the table. There have been minor changes and developments in this area over the last 17 years, but the report has substantially still to be implemented. Implementing means that the stakeholders have to be pursued to take up the matter.

The Department of Education and Skills has been sending out circulars and reminders. It may have had a poster campaign. From a National Parents Council perspective, what disappoints us when it comes to Department of Education and Skills' circulars is that all circulars rightly state that relevant documentation should be circulated to all parents' councils. History and evidence is to the contrary when it comes to schools and boards of management circulating the relevant information to parents. If that was done there would already be a forum within schools to tackle this problem.

Our recommendation would be to include stakeholders. Included in that list of stakeholders should be the Union of Secondary Students in Ireland, which could be an important part of the process because it has modern intake and suggestions that could be made. From that grouping would come some sort of process where we could get some implementation. As to the form that might take, I can only reference to when we set up the National Parents Council a number of years ago, which was a post-primary education forum to discuss educational issues common to all educational partners that were of concern. The post-primary education forum had high-up people from the two teacher unions, the three management bodies, and the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, NAPD. That is the sort of forum that we would suggest, and it would be good to add in some expertise from the likes of Dr. Sara Dockrell. As it is of national importance, the head of the National Parents Council, primary, Ms Áine Lynch, will speak as to how the issue is affecting primary students.

We need a process and a key driver. It will not be enough to get a feel-good factor from us agreeing that something should be done. If we put something in place we need someone to drive it.

Ms Áine Lynch

I thank the Chairman for inviting us today. When we were invited to the committee just over a week ago we struggled as to how to be genuine in representing parents' voices as we had a very tight timeframe. We wanted to ask parents for their views, but we normally have quite a while to develop a survey when we ask parents about a particular issue. We were under a very tight timeframe, but we felt that even if we got a sample we would put it out. The fact that in the four days the survey was out we got over 3,000 responses is the first point I would raise as to how important this issue is to parents. We put a survey out last Thursday and closed it on Sunday night. There were 3,009 responses in that time. Since we closed the survey we have had a number of parents contacting us disappointed that it was closed so quickly because they felt that it was a very important issue and they wanted to have a say in the matter. There is scope for consulting parents more on this issue. That being said, over 3,000 responses gives us a good flavour of parents' feelings around the issue of schoolbags.

Before I go into the survey results, it is important to look at the situation we are in with schoolbags and the weight of them at a primary school level. On behalf of the National Parents Council, primary, I have been to a committee meeting before to talk about the cost of schoolbooks and how we can reduce that cost. The whole schoolbook issue, which is causing the majority of the weight, seems to be going around in a number of different guises. I suppose one of the things that we would be concerned about is the question of whether all of those books are needed in the first place. Is that actually examined? When we are looking at the cost and the weight of them, are we asking ourselves whether we need them in the first place. The 1999 primary school curriculum was written in a way that would suggest that we needed fewer books.

There are also a number of reports. I have referenced one in the submission that asks if we are over-relying on textbooks. That report was from the Education Research Centre, specifically looking at the curriculum subject of maths, and suggested that maybe there was an over-reliance on textbooks.

I will frame all the survey results in the fact that I think we need to go back a few steps at primary school. Before we start to find ways of carrying and paying for books, maybe we need to find out if we need the books in the first place, what teaching and learning look like in our classrooms, and what we intended it to look like.

I am not going to go through all the survey results but some that I want to highlight will reference some of the points that the previous speakers have already made. We asked how children get to school. Some 32% of parents said that their children walked and 57% said that they got a lift. Parents were asked if they were concerned and what their concerns were about the weight of schoolbooks. Some 89% of parents said that they were concerned about the back health of their children and 45% were concerned about their child's general well-being because of the weight of schoolbooks. Some 31% said that their child could not walk because of the weight of schoolbooks. The weight of the schoolbag at primary level is preventing their child from being able to walk in a situation where they otherwise would be able to walk, and that raises concerns about exercise and activity. We asked parents how concerned they were about the weight of the schoolbag. Some 38% of the 3,000 said that they were extremely concerned and 31% said that they were somewhat concerned. They were the two highest ratings. Nearly 70% of parents had some level of significant concern and the rest were slightly concerned or not concerned at all.

We asked what options were provided by the school to reduce the weight of schoolbags. That alludes to Mr. Beddy's comment on trying to find out what schools are doing about it. Parents said a number of options were available in the school from storage facilities to duplicate books and all those kind of initiatives. Some 39% said that there were not aware of any measure taken by schools to reduce the weight of the schoolbag. It is important that schools do something and that parents and children know that they are doing something. It is not necessarily the case that 39% of schools are not doing anything but clearly it is not known about by parents at the school. We asked parents if their child had ever experienced an injury or pain which they believed was a result of carrying their schoolbag, and 22% of parents said that they felt that their child had.

Dr. Dockrell's point around information to parents is really important. Some 80% of parents said that they would like their children to receive information from the school around how to lift and carry their bag. They also want them to learn organisational skills about what books to take or not. I think it is particularly important at primary school when children really struggle with, and are only learning, those skills. Some 71% of parents said that they would like to have more information about carrying and lifting techniques and things like that.

There is a little bit more detail in the survey but I think they are the key points of it. We really feel strongly at primary level that before we start to address the weight of the books in the bag, we need to look at whether all those books need to be in the bag in the first place.

I thank the three witnesses for their presentations, which were very informative, succinct and certainly give us a lot of food for thought. I am very interested in some of the comments made in that it is clearly the number one issue for parents that are making contact with Mr. Beddy. It is an issue, considering the number of students and parents at any one time. I have often heard people refer to the back - I know Dr. Dockrell would be a lot more competent in this area - as being like a credit card in that one can keep bending it and bending it, trying to crack it, and eventually something snaps. That is the danger here. Maybe their backs are not giving way under the schoolbags, but they are certainly wearing them down over time.

I have six children going out with schoolbags every morning and do not take any notice of it but I was prompted to suggest to the committee before Christmas that we would look at this issue by my wife who is from Estonia where they are looking at legislation. The Estonian Parliament is talking about bringing in legislation, although guidelines were brought in in 2001. Maybe the committee has to decide what the way forward is because circulars are by their very nature advisory and temporary. People are reminded but life goes on. As we can see with this issue, nothing has changed 20 years on.

There is one other issue I would like to mention before I open the meeting up to questions. With the advent of e-schooling, iPads and all that, this should not be an issue. Why is it still an issue? Of course many schools have trialled iPads and are moving away from them. I do not accept that the advent of e-schooling is a solution. I reference Estonia again, which would be one of the most advanced countries in Europe for the whole e-school project. They are still talking about bringing in legislation on the weight of schoolbags. I think it is a very real issue that we have to touch on.

I call Deputy Rabbitte.

I thank the witnesses for attending. I am very interested in the survey that was carried out, and particularly about how it was communicated to parents. Was it through the parents' associations or was it through the boards of management? How did it get to the parents?

Ms Áine Lynch

Over the last number of years we have invested quite heavily in a database of parents. We ask every parent who comes into contact with us as an organisation if they would like to go on our contact database. We now have a contact database of around 7,000 parents of children in primary school. We send it out through that.

That is fantastic and is a great way of developing the communication piece. I am a parent of a child in a national school and I sat on a parents' association for a number of years. We did not have that bit of communication. I also have a child in secondary school. There has to be a joining up of the dots. That is the piece that strengthens Ms Lynch's presentation because she has a document saying that parents have or have not heard.

Mr. Paul Beddy

I have had the opposite experience to what Ms Lynch has had in the primary sector. Communication at second level is tied up in data protection by the boards of management. Whereas we can get access to the school, we cannot get the boards of management to approve an amendment to the admissions policy allowing us to tick the box on whether people would like their details to be forwarded to the National Parents Council, post-primary. When it comes to surveys, we are limited to the 700 odd schools and the magnanimity of the principals to forward that survey on to a parent to complete.

That comment strikes me as a another glaring example of where an education ombudsman could have a role but that is for another day. The former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, is smiling at me.

I thank Mr. Beddy for that because that is the critical piece. That is where the communication with the parent comes in. That is where everybody has a role to play and where everybody can feed back in and have a comment. As well as asking the questions, one is developing an awareness and engaging the parents, the school and the boards. One is then bringing it to a higher plane where somebody will eventually take ownership of it. Having three children myself, I know the weight of the bag is staggering. It varies from year to year, whether they are second class, fourth class, or whatever. Schools vary in how they administer it. On Friday evenings, some children do not bring home their bags. or there is a light bag on a Friday and a light bag going in on a Monday morning.

It amazes me how some schools cannot engage in the green schools initiative because schoolbags are too heavy for children to walk to school. It also defeats any initiative for pupils to be physically active. There have to be simpler solutions such as leaving a set of books in school and having fewer copybooks. Everything suggested is reasonable and effective. However, the key is that if we do not address the weight of schoolbags, we cannot get pupils active and fit. I believe it is falling down owing to the engagement with boards of management. As I sit on a board of management, I am being critical and observant. The message is not getting to parents. Teachers are busy and overworked. However, in expecting a child to lift a heavy schoolbag every weekday for 38 weeks of the year we are not looking after his or her best welfare and meeting his or her health and safety needs.

Does the Deputy have a question as there are many members indicating?

How do the delegations see the school management system getting the message across to parents?

I thank the delegations for attending. Twenty years on since the working group reported on this issue in 1997, I am sure schoolbags have got heavier. The baseline for musculoskeletal pain must be impacted on by the extra load. It was stated that prior to the weight of schoolbags becoming an issue, children had reported musculoskeletal pain. Is it what we used to call "growing pains"? Obviously, the weight of schoolbags impacts on children. As a mother of three, I watch them go out the door and wonder if they will make it. They are like ants falling back.

The link with obesity has been proved and the issue needs to be tackled. However, there is the double bind of children having too many books to carry. Could physical education, PE, classes be used to provide training in manual handling? Parents also need to be shown how best to handle a heavy schoolbag. E-books will be significant in reducing the weight of schoolbags. However, research findings were presented last summer on the negative impact of e-books, laptops and iPads on children's developing vision. We need more information on this.

While it is great to talk about having two sets of books, affordability is an issue. It costs €800 to send a child to school every year, which figure can be significantly higher in examination years. For the majority of families, affordability would rule out the luxury of having a double set of books, unless they were subsidised by the State.

I thank the delegations for their presentations. We have moved past the issuing of guidelines and it is time to legislate. I do not care how schools manage to do it. They just have to do it because it is in the interests of children. It should be done in conjunction with schools and parents, by providing them with guidelines on how they might reduce the weight of schoolbags. It would be open to them to decide how the figures we set might be achieved.

With which measurement do we assess which figure is too much weight to carry? We need this information to legislate and enforce it. While we could develop guidelines, the legislation and its enforcement are key. What would be an acceptable level of enforcement? How would we go about enforcing the legislation? Should there be, say, an annual spot check in 10% of schools nationally? Should there be a three-strike rule and then one would be penalised? Should there be an appeals mechanism?

There should also be a certain onus on parents to purchase a suitable backpack capable of carrying a certain weight, as well as ensuring the weight is distributed properly between the shoulders and the hips to avoid impact on the back. I am not sure we need to consult parents further to determine if this is a problem. It is. We need to consult parents on how they would like to see legislation drafted, how it could be enforced and how they would work with schools to meet the requirements and obligations under such legislation. I would take a much harder view. It is our job to legislate. The issue has been discussed for 20 years. Obesity is a problem. There are children in secondary school who are larger than me because they are overweight. There has to be another way of assessing the matter. The delegations need to help us to legislate.

They are interesting points. What are the delegations' views if we were to legislate to deal with the issue?

Dr. Sara Dockrell

While we are talking about parents, teachers and schools being responsible, I would also include children, especially in secondary school. Children should be just as much involved in producing guidelines. While we can work on guidelines for parents and ways of delivering them, children need to be involved too through, say, school projects. They are innovative and probably have solutions to the problem themselves. They are the user group that is missing in the debate.

On the baseline for pain, it is a confounding problem when one assesses the level of pain of children. If one asks any group of children at any point in time if they suffer pain, there is a large prevalence. When we asked 529 children to identify where they felt pain on a body discomfort chart, they told us. It is sometimes difficult to tease out what is and is not schoolbag-related pain. Feeling some pain is not the end of the world for children. They get on with it and play sports. They hurt their feet, fall, trip or bang their heads. We should not get overly anxious about this. Children suffer some discomfort when they carry schoolbags, but there is no evidence that long-term damage is done to their backs or other parts of their bodies as a result. Schoolbag carriage tends to be of short duration. In agreement with research findings from all over the world, we found schoolchildren tended to carry schoolbags for less than ten minutes at a time. It is not a serious issue, although I understand it is a concern when one sees a child under duress in carrying a bag.

I agree that manual handling should be part of what children learn. It is done in the workplace and well legislated for. The difficulty is that children are not employees of the Department of Education and Skills. As they are not sick either, they are not taken care of by the Department of Health. The matter falls between two stools. That said, there is definitely scope to make children more aware and train them to deal with the issue themselves.

It is also about educating them on the best way to carry their schoolbags. I am not suggesting for one minute that they carry very heavy loads, but that is not the main issue. There are many factors involved. When we looked at and analysed it thoroughly, we found that there would be no merit in recommending a weight guideline. We will not be able to legislate to impose weight limits, either in absolute terms or relative to the size of the child. We will not be able to come up with guidelines over which we would be able to stand.

The idea of having e-books is interesting. I am aware of a survey that found that there was no significant difference in the weight of the schoolbags of children who attended e-schools, that is, schools that used iPads. In that sense, e-books are not the answer. Perhaps the technology is not being used properly, but their use has not made a significant difference. Furthermore, there is more evidence of musculoskeletal problems arising from technology use than from carrying schoolbags. Therefore, we need to be very careful in that regard. We cannot go down the route of scrapping schoolbags and telling children only to use laptops, tablets or iPads because there are proven problems with their use.

Perhaps we should have invited Mr. Michael O'Leary as a witness. It would not take him long to find a way to reduce the weight of schoolbags. He has a proven track record in that regard.

Mr. Paul Beddy

On legislation, there is a lot of work to be done, but it is not necessarily a question of developing legislation. If the committee, in conjunction with the Department of Education and Skills, let it be known that serious consideration was being given to the development of legislation, that could be sufficient to focus the attention of all the partners on finding a solution to a problem that is solvable. Once there was agreement between all of the stakeholders, it would be down to implementation and the monitoring thereof. I share Dr. Dockrell's concern about legislation, but the threat of it could help to focus minds.

Ms Áine Lynch

On working with boards of management to address the issue, at primary level the first thing we need to do is to consider how many books children need. When we have done this, we can look at boards of management which are ultimately responsible for policies in schools. All schools have health and safety and risk management policies, the mechanisms through which boards of management can address the issue. The development of a book list is the responsibility of the class teacher. As such, class teachers need to be educated on the non-educational implications. They need to consider issues such as the size of a book when they are drawing up a list for six year olds, for example. We must look at textbook requirements at primary level and then work with boards of management on the issue.

I would be very cautious about taking the legislative route because if we were enforcing legislation, we would potentially be criminalising people. Are we going to criminalise the parent or the teacher? We spoke about children's responsibilities too. I am not sure that is the way to go to reduce the weight of schoolbags. Educating and supporting parents and teachers in making better choices are much better ways to go.

On a parent's responsibility to ensure his or her child has a suitable backpack, the comments section of our survey showed that some parents were buying very expensive, specially designed, ergonomic backpacks made in Germany. We must understand the bigger question of the cost of going to school. While parents have a certain responsibility, specially designed backpacks come at a huge cost and are beyond the financial ability of many parents.

It is very important that the voices of children are heard on this issue. We do have mechanisms to survey children, but we just did not have time to do so in advance of this meeting. There would be no harm in providing manual handling training. When we asked in our survey if parents or their children would benefit from receiving such training, a number of parents said training was not the issue; they said the sheer weight of the schoolbag relative to the size of the child was the problem. When one is talking about six or seven year old children, the issue is not how they lift the schoolbag but the fact that it is just too heavy. While I would not be against providing information on lifting and carrying, the actual weight of schoolbags must be addressed, particularly for very small children.

I thank the delegates for their contributions. Mr. Beddy's idea of gathering the stakeholders together is a good one; it is something the committee should recommend. I also agree that the school students' unions should be included in that gathering. In the case of primary schoolchildren, obviously the National Parents Council - primary - has access to many parents, but there are also student councils in most schools, in which each class has a representative. They could provide a mechanism in passing on information to children.

Two of the delegates have said they do not think legislating would be appropriate. Legislation is being prepared on a parents' and students' charter which might provide a mechanism in dealing with the issue. It would not involve a punitive legislative system whereby people would be criminalised if their children were carrying heavy schoolbags, but it would involve an enunciation of rights. Perhaps we might recommend that the appropriateness of the weight of schoolbags be included in the charter. In that way, we would not be pushing for the drafting of new legislation and would be linking the issue with legislation already promised. I ask the delegates to comment on this.

Ms Lynch made the point that it might be a question of having fewer books. One school of which I am aware facilitates the photocopying of pages from books required for homework in order that children can leave their books in lockers in school. I know that the availability of lockers, particularly in primary schools, is an issue. That said, most second level schools have facilities which allow students to leave at least some of their books in school. Perhaps all schools should have such facilities. I ask the delegates to comment on this. If students are using a very heavy chemistry or history book, for example, the class teacher could simply photocopy the relevant pages and give them to the students to take home, rather than the heavy book. I ask for comments on the practicality of doing this.

Dr. Dockrell said carrying a schoolbag could be seen as part of daily activity and that most children only carried a schoolbag for about ten minutes. Ms Lynch, on the other hand, said many parents would not allow their children to walk to school because their perception was that their schoolbags were too heavy. I ask Dr. Dockrell to address this issue. If parents think schoolbags are too heavy, they will not allow their children to walk to school. As a result, their children will not get exercise.

I have a number of questions for the delegates. The issue of carrying technique is interesting, as is the issue of the quality of schoolbags. Are there minimum standards for schoolbags? There is a wide variation in quality, but features such as hip straps would make a significant difference in weight distribution. If there are no minimum standards, should we consider introducing them? That might have cost implications, but perhaps the State might consider providing a subsidy in the same way as it does for meals, books and school clothing. Are schoolbags included in the existing school clothing scheme for low-income families?

In terms of Dr. Dockrell's research, much of the discussion centred on the mean travelling time for students to school, which is approximately ten minutes, but travel time for some children can be much longer than that. They might have to walk five minutes to the bus stop and on boarding the bus all the seats could be occupied and they might be standing on the bus for another five to ten minutes. They could be carrying a bag on their back for a period ranging from 15 minutes up to an hour a day. Were there any outliers that showed that there was a greater incidence of skeletal muscular injury among students who had longer travel trips to school?

Similar to Deputy O'Sullivan's point, I am conscious that teachers are already under a great deal of pressure in terms of administration, but we should also be talking about the publishers. It should not be difficult to break up large textbooks into a number of small modules that could be sold together and taken home from school as required. Often a student will only need to refer to five to 12 pages of a textbook in a particular subject. That might be the case for five or six subjects and suddenly a student is bringing home 1,000 to 1,200 pages of text, particularly at post-primary school level. Should the possibility be explored of larger textbooks being sold as a unit that could be separated into modules which could be brought home from school as required? I take on board the point regarding avoiding an over-reliance on textbooks and I would be interested in that aspect. That is an educational issue to some extent, aside from the health implications involved, but it is an interesting point.

Are Mr. Paul Beddy and Ms Áine Lynch aware of any schools that have identified models of best practice that they would recommend be followed? In that context, I note the responses to question five in the questionnaire used in the survey of primary schools show that close to 30% of teachers stagger the homework. Is that a practice that should be considered, and if there are models of best practice, how can they be incorporated into guidelines? A great deal of the issues involved relate to the level of homework given. The 15 year old me could not live with myself if I did not take this opportunity to call for the abolition of homework.

Very good, Deputy. We are taking it a step further and straying into the remit of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. I call Deputy Neville to be followed by Deputy Funchion.

Has there been engagement with the book manufacturers on this issue? As opposed to having a double set of textbooks as was mentioned, would they consider publishing a book in two parts? I was a post-primary teacher in a past life and I saw students carrying a big chunky textbook, part of which they might not use until they were halfway through second year but they would have carried it in their bags all through first year. Similarly, students in primary school might use part of a textbook in third class or fourth class but only certain sections of it would be used at certain times of the year. In the first half of the year, the first half of the book would be used and in the second half of the year, the second half of the book would be used. Have there been any discussions with the book manufacturers about manufacturing large textbooks in two or three parts? To alleviate the cost, the parent could buy the three parts of the textbook together and two parts of it could be stored in the student's locker for six or eight months and the student would only have to carry one part of the book in his or her bag.

As was mentioned by Deputy O'Sullivan, photocopying pages from a textbook is a good idea but it is difficult to organise for students to have that and it is even difficult to organise for adults to have a few pages of a document. I see that at committee meetings where there is a great deal of printed material. To try to do that for students is a whole different ball game. There is the matter of the additional workload that would put on teachers and there are also copyright issues around that. Has there been a discussion on that aspect? Has there been engagement not so much with the retailers but with the book publishers? There are procurement agreements in place with retailers and publishers. They know that in the context of school textbooks there will be return business every year. It is not as if there is high competition attrition.

Many of the questions I intended to ask have already been raised. Has any research been done on the weight of the schoolbags relative to the level of homework that is given? Children get far too much homework and I wonder about the benefits of it. The homework might be limited to a certain period of time and schools might take up that practice. I am regularly told by my children's school that homework should take no more than 30 minutes to complete, but it takes far longer than that. If the homework given was limited to one or two subjects per night, that would reduce the number of books a child would have to take home. Has any research been done on schools that have after-school homework clubs or study clubs, where children leave all their books in the school, and on the possible benefits of that?

I would make two points. I would take issue with the recommendation about parents buying lightweight backpacks. One does not often have a choice. One has to buy whatever backpack the books fit into. Even at junior infants level, many of the smaller bags one would think would suit a junior infants child do not because the books do not fit into them. In terms of children bringing home only the books they need, that is the problem. They have to bring home too many books because of the level of homework. If there was a system whereby the amount of homework was limited, that would limit the number of books that would have to be brought home.

I may be being unfair to schools but in my experience I do not know of any school that is proactively trying to address this issue. I regularly tell my children to ask the teacher the books they can leave out of the bag or else the bag will not be brought to school. As parents, we have to say that there is no way our children are going to school carrying bags of that weight. It is crazy. I have a five year old and a ten year old. They are not secondary school children but I experience that every almost morning. This is good work in terms of trying to educate parents but I do not know any parents who are not aware of the issue because they must feel the weight of the bags. However, parents need to put their foot down, address the issue with the schools and tell them their children will not carry bags with that level of weight and that some compromise has to be found. Something should be done about the level of homework that is given. That is a key factor in the weight of the books being brought home every day.

Deputy Lisa Chambers wanted to ask a further question.

I wish to ask a follow-up question. The committee members were provided with a policy advice note that was prepared for the committee. As part of the background information, we were told that studies conducted around the globe have found that schoolbags should weigh no more than 10% to 15% of a child's body weight. International studies advise that there should be a weight restriction on schoolbags, which goes against what the witnesses have told us today. Also a working group that was established here in 1997 recommended that students should not carry in excess of 10% of their body weight. Our study that was published 20 years ago recommended a weight restriction on schoolbags.

No disrespect is intended but I find this conversation quite frustrating because we are saying that things are not okay, that the weight of the schoolbags is too heavy but I am still no better informed as to what the witnesses want us to do. What are they recommending? What do they want us to do? If they do not want legislation to be introduced and they do not want weight restrictions to apply to schoolbags but they are concerned about the cost of backpacks and additional books for parents, I do not know what we are supposed to do after this meeting to advance the issue. I would say to Mr. Beddy that suggesting that we should threaten legislation but that we would have no intention of legislating is a very bad road to go down because it undermines the credibility of the work we are trying to do. What do the witnesses want us to do and how do they want us to do it?

I have a few brief questions. I was going to ask the witnesses the same question Deputy Chambers posed. In the next contributions as they sum up they might advise the direction they would take on this issue. We as a committee will have to make our call on what we will do afterwards, but what would the witnesses suggest we should do to progress this issue? They will have noted the frustration Deputy Chambers expressed. We do not want simply to say that we aired this issue, put it out there, discussed it, left it at that and walked away from it. We want to be more proactive on it.

Dr. Dockrell referred to employees and to legislation covering the workplace. Are the witnesses aware of a case of this nature that may have been taken or where the issue of liability arose? I am not sure where the liability would lie if I as a parent were to take a case against what would ultimately be the school, and I suspect it would be the board of management and not the Department that would be liable.

That the responsibility does not lie with the Department might suit it. Do the witnesses have any thoughts on the liability issue? I think someone compared this to the Army deafness claims in that there could be a raft of students claiming that they were made to carry excessive weight. If it happened in the workplace, there would be a liability.

I jocosely mentioned Michael O'Leary and how he, given his track record, would be the man to bring down the weight of bags. We need to see schools being more proactive and showing more awareness. We can have the debate about introducing legislation afterwards, but every time we walk onto a plane we have to put our bags into a thing. If there was one of them with a weighing scales in every school and children were encouraged to throw their bags up on it to see the weight of the bags, it would create awareness and conversations would start. This goes back to an earlier question. Are the witnesses aware of any examples of good practice in schools or has any parent highlighted any such example?

My final comments relate to what is happening in Iceland where, on schoolbag days, occupational therapists visit schools. They talk to the children about the weight of schoolbags and how to carry them correctly. This again goes back to creating awareness. Iceland reports that it does not have an issue with excessive weight. The matter is mentioned periodically but it is not an issue in Iceland because of these schoolbag days. I would be grateful to the witnesses for their thoughts on those matters. As Deputy Lisa Chambers stated, perhaps the witnesses would focus on suggestions to the committee and then we, as a committee, can make our call on it.

I know there was a lot in that. I call Dr. Dockrell.

Dr. Sara Dockrell

Starting with the Chairman's last point, I agree wholeheartedly about raising awareness among children, in particular, who are very receptive to advice that they are given, especially in primary school. I would advocate a structured awareness raising and education campaign. This is not just about teaching them how to lift and so on but about the risk assessment, that is, all the different factors that contribute to it. Give them the knowledge and let them, their parents and their teachers decide. We need a lot of different people involved in the process and I agree wholeheartedly that publishers should be involved. We would suggest that a bag should fit the child. In other words, it needs to be the size of the child's back. It does not need to be down sort of at their bottom because that interferes with how they walk. Anthropometric measurements will tell us, for instance, how long children's backs are generally and a junior infants book should not be much bigger because it will not fit in a schoolbag that would be suitable for a junior infants child. There is a lot of scope. There are a wide range of stakeholders, including the children, their parents, teachers, various boards, representative councils, student councils, health professionals, schoolbag designers, manufacturers, retailers and publishers. They all need to be included in the discussion to break down the problem into manageable processes.

We need to have a proactive approach. Being heavy handed is not the way to go. People respond better to proactive health promotion. They respond better when they understand what they are being asked to do and the reasons behind it. I do not think that introducing legislation to say that something should or should not be done is the way to go.

Coming back to the point about weight limits, there is research that states that schoolbag limits should not be any more than 10% of the child's body weight, but the same amount of alternative research states that that is not the case. It is a difficult one to call, which is why most of the recent research, including our own, emphasises that we should not hang our hats on the schoolbag weight limit, but rather we should consider it in the context of all manner of other issues. As I stated, I am not suggesting for a minute that we should expect children to carry excessively heavy loads, but carrying a weight on one's back is not necessarily a problem. That has been identified in a lot of research. It changes our posture and we say that children are bent forwards when they carry, but that is fine. We all bend forwards when we sit, but we do not stop children from sitting. They carry a bag for ten minutes or so every day but they sit for hours every day, yet we do not say that they should not sit for long periods. However, that is another story. They should not sit for long periods.

On duration of carriage, I was asked about the length of time children carried their bags and I said it was less than ten minutes. In fact, we know that the children did not carry their bags for very long periods of time because during our study we collected objective data and our survey was researcher assisted. The questions were asked by the researcher one on one with the children, so when they said how long it took them to walk, we quizzed them on where they lived and how far away that was. We therefore got them to give us the most accurate answer they could give.

It is interesting that people say they will not allow their children to walk to school. Many parents state they must drive their children to school because the schoolbag is too heavy, but we found that the weight of the schoolbags of children who travelled by car were not significantly different from the weight of the schoolbags of the children who walked to school. It is interesting when viewed from that perspective.

Summing up, the idea of a parents' and children's charter, where we raise the issue in a strong way, is a great one. There is definitely scope for us to plan perhaps further research into what can be done, but awareness campaigns to date have been minimal. It was mentioned that flyers have been sent around and so forth, but we need to take it further. We need more research and we need to involve the children, the teachers and the parents in the research. If we get them involved in that way, it will become a much more live issue for them. It will also allow them the opportunity to reflect on what can be done and perhaps not look just at the one issue of the schoolbag weight but to look at it in the context of all the other factors.

Mr. Paul Beddy

As I mentioned, given we have the working group's report, a process that includes all the stakeholders is required before one trumps it with legislation. In response to Deputy Lisa Chambers, this would not be the first time the State has threatened to legislate for something if what it is asking someone to do is not done. In this particular instance, there is a frustration after 18 years which might prompt someone to phrase something like that. I think the capacity exists within the stakeholders to come up with implementable solutions that everyone accepts.

Deputy O'Sullivan's suggestion about the parents' and students' charter is a good one. I will meet representatives of many south Dublin schools this evening to discuss that particular topic, so it will be timely to add this matter to the discussion. On the general question of research and the soundings and feelings we have taken about books and making them smaller from publishers etc., it has all been done and is available. Everyone has had their say. What is missing is the process of getting all these people together. For example, I can tell Deputy Neville that there is a company which has been established for a couple of years in Ireland that provides a way of splitting schoolbooks into two or three parts and allows them to be reattached later.

Getting the message across has been poor, as has its implementation. Deputy Ó Laoghaire mentioned schoolbags at second level. We have very little control over that issue because what they carry on their backs is substantially dictated by what is fashionable. As a parent, what we think they should wear is not always what we can get them to wear. Then again, the responsibility lies with the parents.

The process begins by bringing the stakeholders together. If we have a statement from this committee on it, we can, in conjunction with the Department of Education and Skills, put a process in place that includes all the stakeholders and tell them bluntly that 18 years on, we have not seen much progress.

If we cannot come up with a process for implementation that we all agree on, I am afraid the State might just legislate. As we said we are expressing outline reservations over going down that road. We are quite a mature society now; it is not beyond us to sort it and implement it.

Ms Áine Lynch

I agree that we should deal with it through the parent-student charter, but I would hate the parent-student charter to be a list of areas that we dealt with. I think it is more about setting the relationship between parents and children in schools. The parent-student charter should be drafted so that it can deal with the weight of schoolbags or any other issue that comes in. However, if it becomes a list, it will dampen the impact of such a charter.

The issue of photocopying of pages comes up quite regularly from parents. They buy a schoolbook and then have to pay to have the pages photocopied to be sent home as well. Parents often get a yearly charge for photocopying. As a practical solution, at one level it works, but how it is implemented can cause frustration for parents. It comes back to the point that it is very hard to look at weight without looking at other issues as well. It has been mentioned a few times around the homework issue. We are about to embark on research with the NCCA on what the nature of homework should be in primary years.

Deputy Lisa Chambers asked what we were looking for. At primary level we are clearly stating that we are looking for a view on how much textbooks are needed and relied on; that is it. If we muddy the waters with weights, costs or what homework should look like, we keep missing the point. We raise it at every opportunity we can, not just for the weight of schoolbags or the cost of schoolbags, but the educational benefit for children as well.

The curriculum at primary level is set for a certain type of learning; that is experiential learning, learning in groups and experiencing the subject, starting where the learner is at. Those things do not tend to go towards textbook-type learning. Whereas certain textbooks may be needed at primary level, the question is whether we need as many as we have. Rather than keep talking about the cost, we need to start talking about what is required for children's education at primary level in order for them to have the best education they can have.

Parents often tell us that they buy quite heavy and expensive books, but that only a fraction of them are used. These are the kinds of issues we need to address. If we just concentrate on one particular problem with a textbook, we may not finish up with the right answer. That is the most direct way I can answer the question of what we are looking for.

There is no minimum standard for schoolbags. It is very much up to a parent and child. They can bring them in a carrier bag if they want to. I agree with Mr. Beddy that the concentration on the current fashion with bags has a huge part to play. The survey asked parents about waist straps. Very few parents responded that they had backpacks with waist straps. There are no standards or even recommendations. Parents do not get a list of the types of things they should think of when buying a schoolbag and cost also comes into it.

Is there too much homework and is the level of homework correct? We need to look again at the type of homework. We would argue that when children are learning at home it gives a much richer environment to the classroom environment. Children do not have to sit behind a desk; they can learn in different styles. However, children's homework still tends to go along the lines of siting at a table, looking at a book and learning in that way. So if children do not learn particularly well using that style, they are not given other opportunities to learn or to learn within the rich environment outside the classroom. The type of homework needs to be looked at and that would impact on whether a child needs a textbook at home to do the homework.

On examples of good practice, in Ireland it is very teacher-specific, meaning that each teacher decides their own booklist. Some teachers might have a very small booklist, with just a reader on it. It does not mean that they are infants, or fifth or sixth class; it might just be their style of teaching to the curriculum. Because it is so teacher-specific, there are excellent examples of good practice with some teachers and then there are other teachers who are very reliant on the textbook. The NCCA's own review of the curriculum at primary level and other reports would indicate that textbooks can be linked to teacher confidence in subject areas, particularly when it comes to science and other areas. Reports indicate that much of children's science learning is done from a textbook rather than experiential learning within the classroom. That can be linked in certain cases to teacher confidence.

Given that there are so many issues relating to textbooks, looking at the weight in isolation may be missing the larger point.

The remit of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs would be narrower in that we would not look at the value of the textbook as an educational method. That would be a matter for the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. Our concern is really with the health of children's backs. However, I take Ms Lynch's points.

Ms Áine Lynch

That can be one of the difficulties. Children are not separated out into different areas; they come as a whole child. Sometimes different areas need to work together to find the right solution for children. That joined-up thinking is really important in finding the solution in this area.

That is absolutely accepted.

I wish to make a point about minimum standards; I do not necessarily require a response. I understand the point about fashion and the rest of it. While some may choose to take things in a carrier bag, nonetheless items are sold in shops as schoolbags. I see no reason for not having minimum standards there. For example, many of the hurling helmets that were fashionable when I was a teenager cannot be bought anymore because they were not safe enough. There are minimum standards under the EU and all the rest of it. If we were to have minimum standards here, it would make a difference. I think the thickness and distribution of weight are important, and should not be ruled out.

Mr. Paul Beddy

We were specifically asked about recommendations and guidelines. I believe the Chairman mentioned it. We have a schoolbag policy guide and the parents' associations in conjunction with school management at a number of schools have issued policy guidelines. What is missing from nearly everybody's thinking is addressing the textbooks themselves. We do not want to issue national guideline policies without more engagement with the publishers. It is actually giving in to the fact that the weight of the book is the weight of the book or the question of providing split books. The short answer is that there are schoolbag policy guidelines and some schools implement what they have come up with as their own local policy.

I thank the witnesses for sharing their expertise with us. The committee will examine the issue further and as a courtesy we will update the witnesses on the outcome of our deliberations in due course. We may require further assistance from the witnesses present. We look forward to that if it arises.

The joint committee went into private session at 11.20 a.m. and adjourned at 12.05 p.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 8 February 2017.