THE national curriculum has placed a heavier burden on children's shoulders than its creators could ever have imagined.
Pupils now shuffle around wearing on their backs the sum total of knowledge their teachers hope will one day be stored in their heads.
Textbooks are heavier and more numerous, the old school desk with a lid is now a museum piece and 40 per cent of schools do not provide lockers.
The school bag has become the portable desk, turning the nation's pupils into pack animals.
Once the bag was reserved for the next lesson's books and those other essentials; a pencil case, marbles, conkers, football cards, a picture of your favourite pop star and a lock-up diary you didn't want your mum to find.
Today it is a fashion statement, right from the logo emblazoned across the front to the contents of its inside pocket.
Forget conkers and marbles, the trappings of classroom chic in the Year 2000 are far more sophisticated. First, there is the mobile phone, with a spare pay-as-you-go card, or a pager. Then there are Fingerboards, the craze for mini skateboards designed to show off one's dexterity, the latest Pokemon game for your Gameboy and Pokemon cards to exchange in the playground, or, if you're really into one-upmanship, a NeoGeo, the latest in computer game wizardry.
For girls, it is all glitz and glitter; glittery pencil cases, lipsticks and eye shadow and fluffy make-up bags. Mobile phones are colour-coordinated and secret diaries are now activated by a voice detector, not a lock and key.
All this adds up to a hefty load, with the average school bag nowweighing 5.5kg, according to a recent survey by BackCare, formerly the National Back Pain Association.
Its research came after an increasing number of children complained to GPs about back pain. It found pupils were carrying up to a third of their own body weight, instead of the recommended maximum of 20 per cent. Fifty-seven per cent used rucksacks, but about four-fifths of these pupils carried them on one shoulder, which potentially causes more damage to the spine.
Even then, BackCare says many rucksacks are badly-
designed. Some schools, such as Beechen Cliff comprehensive in Bath, now urge parents to buy the ergonomically-designed BackCare rucksack.
"Ours may not have a fashionable logo on it, but at least it looks after your back," says Bruce Sparrow, of BackCare, who says that 116 million working days are lost each year due to back problems, compared with 50m a decade ago.
Strain on developing spines can only worsen the problem.
Roy Ludlow, headteacher of Beechen Cliff, became concerned after parents kept mentioning their children's back problems.
"By the time they've finished with hockey practice and a concert rehearsal in one day you could put them in the weight-lifting team," he says.
Italy has taken the matter one step further. Ministers there are about to draw up legislation limiting the weight a child can carry to and from school.
BackCare sees two possible solutions: their own backpack or more lockers.
However, there may be a simpler solution. Place all textbooks on one CD-Rom, then there really would be plenty of room for all those other essentials of teenage life.
BackCare can be contacted on 020 8977 5474 or e mail:email@example.com.