Schools for scoundrels

A few weeks ago, Jamaica’s Education Minister put his teaching community into a tail spin over a report on Crime and Education. The basic point was that certain schools were associated with a significant number of criminals in prison. The matter was botched in my view, not least by some loose language by the Minister and in the media that pointed the blame at schools as if they were factories, turning out hoodlums by the dozen. Naturally, that offended many teachers, who see themselves trying hard to shape children into good citizens, often in circumstances where the basic supports of life barely exist. They are struggling against some heavy odds.

However, the more-than-a-grain of truth is that many criminals in Jamaica were failures at school. Testimony to that came in a current affairs discussion last night on TVJ’s “All Angles”. They failed at school? Schools failed them? They wasted their time? Schools lost patience with them? Discipline issues. This is a chicken and egg topic. But the bottom line is that many criminals dropped out of school or came away with a much lesser grasp of many rudimentary skills. They are persons just not well-equipped to do many things, other than basic labouring work. Fast forward. Crime as an occupation then becomes an easy option, especially if the ‘skill’ needed is brute force and callousness. The attendant dangers to personal well-being are then taken as one of the risks of the trade. Maybe, people talk themselves into walking away from that life, but it rarely happens.

We can’t turn Jamaica around in a very short time, because the flow of potential criminals–if we take the failures in the education system as a proxy–continues unabated. But, can we manage the situation better? I want to be optimistic and say “Yes”. We know that various programs exist to put more resources into communities that have been plagued by crime. A lot of human time and effort is geared towards direct help. It’s not enough. Those communities often have little that will attract people or investors, so are condemned to ‘more of the same’. Life is so dire that little differences in opportunities can seem enormous, by comparison. If one street gets something a little better than the next, it may seem that the whole world has changed. That, too, can be the source of more rivalry–call it petty jealousy–over which people are not reluctant to take up arms.

But, one element eludes many of these communities–jobs. Most people are brought up with the mantra of hard work being important. But, when you cannot find work to do, hard, or easy, many struggle to know what to do with themselves. People who are better educated or have other skills can make things happen. If you are lacking in either or both, you will struggle.

Much airtime is being given to what Jamaica needs to move forward. A phrase that keeps haunting us is that the 21st century demands much higher levels of learning. We are in an era of fast-moving technologies. Jamaican politicians are sitting on the coat tails of a potential logistics hub development, but have not been very forthcoming about the type of jobs that will be generated and the kind of jobs Jamaicans are likely to get. They may not know. Or, if they know, dare not say. I’ll go there.

Just last summer, we read about the ‘mass’ exodus of skilled port workers from Jamaica to Canada. Concern was voiced about loss of technicians, but a training programme and new equipment would help keep customers. Ironically, Jamaica was becoming a ‘technological university’ for the Canadian market. Target skills had been those trained in the maintenance exercises of the mobile equipment, such as the big straddle carriers, trucks and big container lifters. But also crane operators and heavy-equipment operators. The only thing working against this high demand was ‘indiscipline of some truckers when they go to Canada’.

So, Jamaica has skills for the basic port work, but they are dwindling in response to the country’s fragile economic situation. Could they be brought back if the logistics hub works out? Probably not. Opportunities in Canada are far more attractive–harsh winter weather, notwithstanding. So, could we train enough people to do the work? We have time. But, the stock of people from whom trainees will likely come is unlikely to include many or any from crime-infected communities.

Many people without work naturally get excited at the prospect of new jobs coming their way, even if they do not have skills to take advantage of the opportunities. Truth is, they are likely to still be stuck on the corner, hoping.

If politicians can be honest about the prospects they see for their population, can they be honest about the potential disappointment that lays ahead for many striving for something to do? If they are, they know they will face questions about “What are you doing for us?” (leaving aside the dependency problem). Do nothing and keep watching what happens to crime.

Jamaica’s crime problem is not unique in the Caribbean. Islands that have had a history of performing much better have seen their crime problems grow–The Bahamas, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago–even surpassing Jamaica in some unenviable categories, on a per head basis. The common elements have been drugs, gangs, and unemployment, with a familiar base of low educational levels. The region’s teachers used to be one of the aspects that set us apart from other developing areas. We lost many to migration, but kept a good many, too. The reasons for failing education are many, but some of the results are clear. It’s an area we need to fix, at a national and a regional levels, and fix fast.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

One thought on “Schools for scoundrels”

  1. The study was tremendously flawed in many ways, and not well handled by either the Minister or the media as you noted. Completely unnecessary to “brand” those schools as the Minister did, in my view. But I also believe families, communities – and yes, the general and pervading joblessness in these communities, as high as 60-70% among young people in certain neighborhoods – must be major factors.


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