Why so many workbooks?

WHAT'S wrong with our school authorities? Or the Education Ministry? Why does it take so long to resolve once and for all the problem of heavy schoolbags?

The media has time and again highlighted this matter. But until now, pupils are still facing the threat of both psychological and physical damage having to lug heavy schoolbags daily. It's particularly so for those in their first two years at school given their tiny physique.

It doesn't take experts or doctors to tell us that this could retard their growth and cause back problems.

It's not rocket science. Just stop it. If we can't even do this, then how is our school system going to tackle the more crucial issues, especially that of ensuring quality education?

My good friend, Tan Sri Alimuddin Mohd Dom, a former education director-general, admits that the ministry has been discussing this issue for over a decade and says it's a health hazard to carry more than 10 books to school daily.

On hindsight, most ex-education DGs must have regretted that they weren't able to put to rest this problem during their tenure. And let's hope the current one and the education minister will make a difference.

I can't help but cite the case of my seven-year-old grandson. His schoolbag is much heavier than the one I carried throughout my secondary school years.

The "culprits" are the many workbooks that he has to carry daily.

When I suggest to him that he doesn't need to take all such books to school in one go, he says he isn't sure which to leave behind as the teachers don't give clear instructions.

And on top of that, the Year One classrooms in his school are on the second floor so they have to climb the stairs with their heavy bags.

If I were the headmaster, a more logical idea would be to locate the classes for seven-year-olds on the ground floor.

News reports seem to put the blame for this phenomenon on parents, too, who want more homework for their children. But this does not mean having to carry more workbooks daily? I don't think so. No parents want to hurt their children psychologically and physically?

Deputy Education Minister Datuk P. Kamalanathan told me that parents naturally want their children to maximise their potential and there's nothing wrong with that.

But all parties including teachers, parents and parent-teacher associations should work together to ensure that children's wellbeing remains a priority always, he said.

I really hope Kamal, as he's better known, can as a personal crusade, put an end to this lingering heavy schoolbag scourge.

And whatever happened to the ministry's circular on workbooks issued in 2000 and again in 2004 that instructed schools to discontinue workbooks for Year One and Two?

I urge the Education Ministry to ensure that this instruction be complied with immediately without any more excuses. Period.

Those of my generation had thinner text books in our bags but certainly not such heavy workbooks and as Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam rightly points out, "we generally enjoyed school much more and yet prospered".

If I may add, who could dispute the fact that the school system of the past was superior to that of the present?

Navaratnam in a letter to the editor says it's no wonder that there is more indiscipline and frustration in schools today.

And he says our school academic performances as measured by international standards are relatively low and our national productivity has become unimpressive and even declining. "Where is the logic of this kind of education?" he asks.

This has also been highlighted in successive World Bank reports on the quality of Malaysia's human capital.

Another friend, Stephen Ng, told me that the issue over workbooks has plagued Chinese primary schools for umpteen years and is worse compared with other schools.

He said workbooks, which are the main cause of back-breaking schoolbags, had even become a multi-million dollar business. This adds a whole new dimension to this issue.

He cited the example of his son's primary school (2,400 pupils) in Bandar Utama where parents have to fork out at least RM100 for workbooks for each child.

This is nearly a quarter million ringgit for one school. When you multiply this with the number of Chinese schools, it indicates good business for the workbook suppliers.

While waiting for the overworked headmasters and teachers to sort out this "chronic" problem with its associated risks on our children and grandchildren, let's just go for the simplest and cheapest solution which Navaratman alludes to.

It's for schools to provide cheap wooden lockers to pupils to keep these heavy workbooks without having to carry them. Certainly at RM15 per locker everyone can afford it and even the parent-teacher associations can supply them.

And on a more permanent basis, when the ministry changes the desks for pupils, let's have compartments under the desks to keep these workbooks.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com