Although it is heartening to go through a recent circular from the Education department regards making major cut on the otherwise too heavy school bags that burdened the young school children, it however remains to be seen how far managements of schools, especially the public schools, cooperate in implementing the directive, in letter and spirit. . The Union HRD Ministry has reportedly asked States and Union Territories to frame guidelines so that students in classes I and II are required to learn only mathematics and languages. No homework should be assigned to them; their schoolbags should not weigh more than 1.5 kg; neither should they be asked to bring additional books and material to school. For classes III to V, environmental studies can be added as the third subject while the schoolbag weight should be only in 2-3 kg range. Similar guidelines have been framed in the past, notably by CBSE in 2016, but these were widely disregarded because these were never legally binding. The Central government’s oft-stated stand is that school curriculum load must be reduced, the focus should be on a child-cantered, process-oriented and constructivist approach, and learning by rote must be done away with. However, there is no law as yet to regulate schoolbag weights. The Rajya Sabha did pass the Children’s School Bags (Limitation on Weight) Bill in 2006, stipulating among other things that the schoolbag should not weigh more than 10 percent the weight of the child, that school lockers be provided, and that kids in nursery and kindergarten should not be made to carry schoolbags at all. Schools flouting the rules should be fined up to Rs 3 lakh, the bill stated. And therein matters have stood, with the Centre content to keep the ball in State governments’ court as Education happens to be on the Concurrent list. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has long been suggesting measures to ensure the 10 percent cap on schoolbags. These suggestions include ban on asking schoolkids to carry books outside NCERT or SCERT syllabi, drawing up time-tables so that every subject is not taught every day, and making study material available in classes. The Bombay High Court in 2006 had ordered the 10 percent cap on weight of schoolbags; a decade later, when the court asked Maharashtra government how the cap was being implemented, it was informed that a committee had been set up to look into the matter! It is a fact though, that States like Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana have taken some steps to lessen the load on school students.
In May this year, the Madras High Court took strong exception to subjects like computer science and grammar prescribed for class I students, while reminding the Central and State governments that “students are not weightlifters” to be toting heavy schoolbags. On homework, the HC bench noted: “Young children are notably lacking in ‘executive control’, the ability to concentrate, to follow directions, to control impulses and keep details in mind. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect KG students, first and second class students to do homework or assignment on their own. Homework for class I and II children have to be prohibited.” Many guardians would surely agree, considering that it is they who mostly end up doing the homework for their wards. As for the physical toll, an ASSOCHAM survey in 2016 found that over two-third of school children are on their way to become chronic sufferers of back pain and even turn into hunchbacks, thanks to lugging schoolbags weighing around 45 percent of their body weights. And it is not just heavy reference books that they find so burdensome — according to the survey, the absence of lockers in schools forces students to carry art kits, swimwear, sports gear and so on. What has to be kept in mind is if state authorities backpedal over the latest guidelines, these too will fizzle out like the earlier ones. Another aspect highlighted by some reports is the dogged resistance to such moves by a section of school managements and guardians. Their argument is that homework makes students revise, and thereby retain, what has been taught in school, while guardians can assess the academic progress of their wards.