PETALING JAYA: There’s not much Desonny Tuzan can do when he looks at the tired faces of his daughters after a day at school, except to sigh for them over the load of homework they are saddled with.
Dessony, a restaurateur, complains that his children have too much homework to handle and, to make matters worse, have to lug large numbers of workbooks and exercise books to and from school because the assignments require them to do so.
This was taking a toll on their young bodies, he told FMT.
“They complain about the weight of their bags every day and you can see how uncomfortable it makes them.”
He said the bags often weighed as much as 5kg and the children had to carry them for about 200 metres from the school bus to their classrooms.
The education ministry issued circulars in 2000 and 2004 that said Year 1 to Year 3 students did not have to take workbooks to school and Year 4 to Year 6 students needed to have only one workbook per core subject.
But this doesn’t mean anything to Desonny or his daughters, who are in Year 2 and Year 6. They have to complete their assignments anyway.
How much can a child bear
How much should school bags weigh? According to Dr Roshan Gunalan, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the UM Specialist Centre, a rule of thumb is that anything above 8kg is too much for a child.
“A lot of it also depends on how the children carry their bags,” he said. “Even if the weight is below 8kg, not carrying the bag properly could have an effect.”
Roshan said young children were susceptible to injuries from carrying heavy weights. It could cause muscle fatigue and, in the long run, affect their growth plates, he added.
He described growth plates as “factories” for bone production.
“The more immediate effect is that the children can get backache or hip or shoulder pain if their bags are too heavy,” he said. “Over time, their growth plates could be damaged and affect their growth potential.”
He said there was a lack of studies on the matter and the effects he spoke of were only possible consequences.
He advised parents to teach their children to carry their bags in such a way as to ensure even distribution of weight. For example, he said, they should hang the bags over both shoulders and avoid hunching.
He also said children should put their bags on a bench or on the floor while waiting to be picked up from school and parents should consider buying roller bags for them.
Harry Tan, the secretary-general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP), said parents could report to the education ministry if school officials were not abiding by the 2000 and 2004 circulars.
“The ministry’s guidelines are clear,” he told FMT. “Everyone should have the same number of workbooks, but there are school officials who aren’t abiding by the circulars.”
He said the extra weight had to come from workbooks because everyone used the same textbooks.
Tan said the issue of overloaded school bags usually involved the more “affluent” or “sought after” schools.
He said the wider adoption of technology, such as the use of laptops, was one way to reduce the number of books a student would need to carry, but he added that using books was still one of the best ways to instil the reading habit.
“But at the end of the day, I think we should leave it to the teachers to decide on the approaches they want to use as long as they adhere to the ministry’s guidelines.”
‘Just bring all the books’
Gan Hui Loo, a primary school teacher, spoke of parents who insist that their children take all their books to school to avoid forgetting any that would be needed.
She also said many children couldn’t be bothered to organise their school bags themselves according to their timetables. “They are so dependent on their parents that they even expect their parents to help them pack their bags.”
She pointed that many schools provided lockers for students, enabling them to carry home only the books they needed for home assignments.
Zaiton Abu Bakar, who is both a teacher and a mother, complained that her daughter’s school didn’t allow students to leave workbooks or exercise books inside school lockers.
“My daughter has around five to seven subjects per day and needs to carry at least three to six books for each subject,” she said. “What happened to the billions spent on high-tech learning tools?”
She said she felt sorry for her daughter because she had to carry her heavy bag to her third-floor classroom.
RM4 billion project failed?
Noor Azimah Rahim, who heads the Parent Action Group for Education, asked what had happened to the 1BestariNet project.
“The government pumped a lot of money for the project, which would see students using the internet to learn rather than books,” she said. “But we’ve yet to reap any of the benefits.”
The RM4.1 billion project is aimed at providing government schools with high-speed 4G connectivity and an online learning platform. It has come under much criticism from several quarters. NUTP has complained that teachers and schools have had to fork out money for internet connections.
Referring to the education ministry’s circulars, Noor Azimah said they should be seen only as advisories. Parents and teachers should get together to discuss students’ needs, she said.
“If parents feel that one workbook isn’t sufficient, they should discuss this with the teachers.”
She also said parents should buy workbooks and help their children work on them at home so that they don’t have to take them to school.
*Ivy Chong, Nurul Azwa and Afiqah Farieza contributed to this article.