Ronald Thwaites | The solution beckons
So often the burden of outdated institutions and the encrustation of budgetary obligations prevent any government from initiating thoroughgoing change even when the need is obvious and urgent.
Radical change becomes even more difficult when there is little data-based public education about problems and solutions, and where an administration is so afflicted with fear or arrogance that it believes it has all the answers and refuses to collaborate with its so-called opponents.
The Jamaica National Service Corps, recently engrafted on to the Jamaica Defence Force, is a commendable effort, but, sadly, an inadequate half-measure, given the sheer numbers of Jamaica's unattached youth. And yes, I am respectful of the other plans to extend apprenticeship and to find some measure of temporary occupation for others who are unemployed.
The rebuilding of positive character traits has to be the central imperative of any credible national security policy that is not based on repression. Relieving idleness, even for a short while, and twinned with some retraining will undoubtedly help, but is not sufficient to address the need for the "deeper societal cleansing" that this newspaper's editorial of two Saturdays ago suggested is required.
The data don't lie, no matter how we try to evade their terror. Particularly in the communities where criminal behaviour is incubated, at least two-thirds of our youth do not grow in what anyone would describe as a stable home with basic resources such as sufficient food, a habit of church attendance, constructive discipline, and educational reinforcement.
The schools that such children attend, in the main, cannot cope no matter how much false freeness you think you have lavished on them. Teacher skills are very often misaligned with student needs, and social deficits, from language to lunch money, compromise efficient outcomes. The norm of promotion by age simply kicks the aggravating problem up the grade ladder until the day after the mirage of graduation dawns. Then disillusionment begins.
The solution is as available and affordable as it is unpostponable. And it must have two limbs.
The first is for the immediate rescoping of early-childhood education, turning the emphasis almost entirely on inculcating tough and enduring social values and habits. This will complement and make effective the usual introduction to formal learning. A significantly revised curriculum must be developed now, scaled to the gravity of the social challenges.
In partnership with the churches, about 1,500 poorly performing basic schools must be taken over, merged or enabled with adequate state, parental and private resources, within two years.
Nothing piecemeal will suffice if we want to stop the system vomiting up the present 20,000 inappropriately socialised and unskilled humans annually. Nothing that we currently spend on the higher levels of education will bear enough good fruit if the social, emotional and attitudinal foundations are not securely laid by age eight.
Do we have the courage to disrupt the existing system by retraining and assigning the best teachers and ensuring consistent nutrition to the early-childhood sector? I reckon that J$6 billion a year so invested would repay us multiples of that within five years. And a good portion of the money is available from a reconfigured, current education spend.
The second limb of the solution is the engagement of at least 100,000 idle youth per year in a programme run by the military, educators and all other social agents, to instil discipline, fitness, morals, habits of productivity and an introduction to skills and entrepreneurship. A year spent in such intense activity will make a big difference to most disillusioned lives, even in the present climate of poor social reinforcement.
Spend J$15 billion of our devaluing currency on such a venture this year and next, and watch the crime numbers decrease and the productivity and growth indices increase, and quite possibly, the revaluation of the very dollar!
Obviously, there is a host of refinement and detail required to implement these proposals. Let the discourse from now on centre around these and, as Audley preaches but few of us practise, let it not matter who gets the credit.
The main thing holding us back is the political will to challenge the status quo of structure and cost, and in that regard, one political hand can't clap.
- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.