Editorial | JAMAL-style mobilisation
Fayval Williams’ argument that tackling violence in Jamaican schools is not only for the education ministry is unimpeachable.
Indeed, as the minister said at a recent church-sponsored seminar in Ocho Rios, St Ann, the crisis demands a broad partnership of “schools, parents and communities” in an “all-Jamaica approach” for its solution.
But while the Government is right about the need for coalition-building, the administration has not approached the matter with the requisite vim or depth of conviction to give the enterprise the best chance of success. There is a passivity to its approach that will not encourage or excite participation of the kind that will make a dramatic difference – or even to the level the minister for education and youth hopes to achieve.
Put another way, this newspaper, as we have said before, believes that the crisis in the island’s schools demands a multipronged intervention that rests on a strategy of national mobilisation, similar to the 1970s assault on illiteracy under the Jamaica Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL) programme.
Those interventions must include violence-interruption schemes, such as those Minister Williams highlighted at the seminar; the ready availability of dispute resolution support for students; and psychological and psychiatric help.
And very importantly, they must be underpinned by a very deliberate programme, embedded in the national curriculum, to inculcate positive values and attitudes (by whatever name called) in students, from the early-childhood level through to the tertiary system. After all, the general indiscipline and crudity in the society that Jamaicans so often complain about is a manifestation of a malady that takes root in people’s youth.
Violence and dysfunctional behaviour are not new in Jamaica’s schools. Neither are they uncommon phenomena among children in general.
According to one study two decades ago, nearly eight in 10 high-school students said that they had witnessed violence in their communities, and six in 10 had encountered violence in schools. Approximately 30 per cent admitted to having, at some point, used violence against others, including school peers.
However, the current problem of violence in schools, based on anecdotal evidence, appears to have worsened since the return to classroom teaching, after an absence of two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts have explained that this is a manifestation in the school environment of the deepened social and psychological stresses many children, especially those who live in marginal circumstances, faced during the pandemic.
Indeed, prior to the onset of COVID-19, UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, reported that one in six (16.4 per cent) Jamaican adolescents suffered from a mental disorder, compared to the island’s health authorities’ estimate of one in four (40 per cent) for all Jamaicans.
Clearly, society in general could have benefited – and even more so now – from greater levels of psychological support. But given the limited prospects for such help in homes and communities, early interventions in schools would probably be of even greater long-term value to society.
That is why the Government must assemble a brigade of psychiatrists, psychologists, schools’ guidance counsellors, social welfare officers, people trained in dispute resolution skills, as well as other volunteers to support teachers in an assault on the behavioural problems of students. This, over the longer term, would be buttressed by the curriculum-based courses in civics and values and attitudes.
A project such as we propose cannot, if it is to have the impact for which this newspaper hopes, just be another of the passive initiative that falls within a cookie-cutter matrix, whose success is measured by a formulaic ticking of boxes by disinterested or uninvested bureaucrats.
It demands leadership with a deep stake in outcomes and who are willing to invest in mass mobilisation of a quality not seen in Jamaica for several decades, that transforms the undertaking from an idea to a national movement.
In that regard, the comparative effort would be the JAMAL initiative of the mid-1970s, when Jamaica’s literacy rate hovered around 50 per cent and hundreds, and probably thousands, of educated and dedicated people signed on to a national campaign to teach other Jamaicans to read and write.
The then prime minister, the late Michael Manley, assumed leadership of that campaign. Prime Minister Andrew Holness should be at the helm of this one.
Last November the shadow education minister, Damion Crawford, suggested the establishment of a department of volunteerism in the education ministry to coordinate the efforts of Jamaicans who want to give of their time and expertise to help address the problems of the sector. This initiative would be ideal for such an agency to manage.
There is no sign that Mr Crawford’s idea has been taken on board, in which event Prime Minister Holness, himself a former education minister, should urgently talk with Mr Crawford.
The problem of violence in Jamaican schools and the crisis confronting Jamaica’s young people, especially its young men, is far too acute for anyone, of whatever persuasion, to be hung up on the political colour of good ideas.