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A firestorm has erupted in Jamaica this week over the relationship between schools and crime. Let’s put it simply. A study found a correlation between schools attended and the placement of persons in prisons. The conclusion that has been focused on is that remedial measures need to be taken at certain schools to prevent them from being the ‘source’ of criminals.

Many people understand that correlation is not causation. I grow tomatoes in a pot and they grow well. If I get better pots that does not give me better tomatoes. The reasons (causes) for (of) good growth are elements like soil, water, sun, seed quality, and other relevant factors, not the pots.

The discussion going on reminds me of a joke about a man who used to drink fortified spirits a lot. He tried rum and water; got drunk. He decided to try gin and water; he still got drunk. He moved to whisky and water; drunk again. Lastly, he tried vodka and water; blind drunk, as a skunk. He decided he’d better stop drinking water. Makes sense, right? It was the only common thing. However, we know or understand that it’s the alcohol that is working to distort the man’s behaviour, not the water.

Social deviance is complicated to understand. Most people would not put schools as the causes of bad behaviour, even though the environment in some schools may well support bad behaviour. The people working in schools are usually trying hard to ensure that behaviour is good, if only for their own survival and sanity. In what way would it serve teachers and schools administrators to ‘produce’ deviants and criminals? Alright, in a Dickensian setting, we can think of a ‘school for scoundrels’, but Fagin was not a school teacher in the normal sense.

I heard the Minister of Education, Reverend Thwaites, discussing during a post-Cabinet briefing yesterday, the report and reactions to it. He seemed to have no regard for those who concerns about the implicit absurdity of a causal link between schools and crime–above all. I stress that last part because the government’s actions only make sense if they believe that causal link.

Some, like me, would think that the socio-economic environment from which the persons came would and should be a major place to see causes. Likewise, their family or community backgrounds. If you live and breathe crime at home, what school can do to counter may be very little. Isn’t that why people talk about ‘overachieving’ students? They have done well at school despite a host of adverse non-scholastic influences. That’s why the young man who got a Rhodes Scholarship, after graduating from Vauxhall High School (one of the schools highlighted in the report in question), received a lot of attention. It’s not that any school may not be able to educate someone well. Some schools have a hard time doing the job of education because of things not to do with the school and its teachers. 

We also should not forget what the Jamaican educational system supports by having a filtering system for secondary schools. In fact, the study might have led to a better conclusion if Jamaica did not filter. Instead, children with low academic scores are pushed away from so-called ‘better’ schools. Without a group of consultants, we should be able to hypotesize about the results that systems like that would produce. If I keep feeding one person poor nutrition and another good nutrition, how would I expect them to grow?

In this discussion, I think the print media has played a very shoddy role. It was irresponsible for the Gleaner to run a story headlined ‘Prison schools’. It used terms such as ‘churning out’ or ‘produced the most inmates’. Terms like that suggest a converyor belt process, like making sausages. The sample data do not support such conclusions. To me, the press portrayal was so wrong that I was surprised to not see a retraction or apology.

I have no problem identifying (as Educate Jamaica does) secondary schools for underperformance in terms of what is produced in terms of educated individuals, something that should be at the core of their existence (or mandate). But, I would also want to understand well what the schools were having to work with in terms of ‘inputs’ (primary school students). A lot of shaping has already happened by the time children move from primary to secondary schools. To the extent that children end up badly educated, we know that our societies will give them fewer chances to succeed. They are not well equipped to compete for jobs. Hence, they are more likely to struggle to rely on ‘regular’ work to make a living. If we had a society that somehow guaranteed everyone a ‘living wage’, home and good health, many people would not feel pressured in finding ways to get on with life. (A few countries have tried something along those lines.)

But, I am not prepared to saddle schools to carry all the ills I see in my society. More so, when the schools are funded by public resources, because they may well be suffering and reflecting the financial choices imposed on a country, to the detriment of other objectives.

We may find that almost all prison inmates were born in public hospitals. Should we start remedying public hospitals because of the high incidence of criminals that are associated with them?