Ronald Thwaites | Idle hands, idle minds
Few people in authority want to talk about the possibly 150,000 Jamaicans under 35 who, in polite speech, we term 'unattached'.
So let us commence a constructive discourse here.
These are the graduates or the dropouts of our schools who have no matriculation requirements for tertiary training or insufficient means to finance higher education. Many who may have passed a subject or two in school regress and lose their competencies the longer they are unemployed. Their social skills and personal discipline deteriorate the longer they are on the street corners of Jamaican life. More than any of the other groups, they are likely to commit crimes and be the victims of crime.
Because we have a youth unemployment rate above 30 per cent and this cohort is of child-bearing age, they have the most children, the lowest rates of stable families, and are, at best, parents under severe pressure. Their children, with these background challenges, tend to be undersocialised, poorly nourished, underloved and poorly resourced for excellent educational outcomes.
Of course, over the years, we have spent billions on all manner of youth-enrichment efforts. We are still doing so with less-than-modest success. You would think that since largely youth-involved crime is said to cost the economy as much as $100 billion a year, there would be more interest in doing a thorough and continuing assessment of what the schools, the youth ministry, the Social Development Commission, the National Youth Service and all the other private and public efforts are doing.
Vast amounts are spent on remedial education, resocialisation and punishment with little coordination and evaluation.
Last week, at a Values and Attitudes Steering Committee meeting, Joseph M. Matalon of the YUTE programme stated that while skills training and business orientation are necessary, without a change of attitude - pride in oneself, respect for others, discipline and manners - most of our young people will not be ready to take their place in the globally competitive marketplace for jobs.
I wonder if our Cabinet, the political parties, the private sector or the Economic Growth Council understand this. It is hardly likely because we fail even to name the problem in all its enormity, let alone to contemplate effective and affordable solutions.
So let us put forward two solutions - one medium term and the other to start in the short run.
Not many years ago, in one of the very infrequent discussions about educational policy in Parliament, MP Audley Shaw strongly advocated the overhaul of early-childhood education under state control to ensure better resourcing and higher quality. It is passing strange that now that his political tendency administers the country, instead of advancing that admirable and crucial policy, expensive, unsustainable and muddling priority has been placed in the secondary arena.
Now that the school has become the primary institution for positive socialisation, it is at the pre-primary and primary levels that the morals, behavioural norms, values and attitudes can most economically and definitively be inculcated.
Decisive action on this matter is more important than the obsession with academic skills. Imaginatively done, with affordable virement of currently wasted funds and personnel in the existing education budget, in five years, we would be well and sustainably under way towards a better-adjusted, more productivity-oriented Jamaican youth population.
In the shorter run, let us rethink what it will take to achieve national security. Emphasis on curbing those with antisocial tendencies is less costly in human and money terms than restraint and repression.
Again, recently, I have had occasion to observe the life- and habit-changing experience of feckless youth when exposed to military discipline and training. So let us look at how to maximise the contribution of the Jamaica Defence Force to social peace and development.
We need a programme of national military service, lasting at least six months in the first instance, available to all, but required of those who drop out or finish school without qualifications or skills or with behavioural problems. The process should extend to the corner men and women as well.
Leave out weapons training from the process. Bring together, locally and from the diaspora, available skill sets under the organisational leadership of the military to ferret out and treat the pathologies of all entrants. Indoctrinate them in the dignity, joy and purpose of being Jamaican. Insist on physical fitness, healthy lifestyles and wholesome relationships. Orient them all towards the value of work and provide career direction. If they are lacking, enrol them in the Alternative High School Diploma and the wealth of other training opportunities.
The skills, personnel and budgets of the disparate youth and training agencies, the army and several joined-up ministries and agencies all could provide a good start.
- Ronald Thwaites is opposition spokesman on education. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.