Liberation through Education
Sophie Evans reports back on her experience as part of the twenty-strong National Education Union (NEU) delegation to Cuba in October 2019
The NEU delegation to Cuba has transformed my view of what is possible through education. We typically view education as a path to success in later life. However, in Cuba, it is a holistic, life-long journey of liberation and integrity which is embedded into society.
Each of the classrooms we visited was filled with enthusiasm and love of learning. When barriers to higher education are removed, so are the barriers to aspiration: children are empowered by the possibility of pursuing whatever they desire, and this resonated from the youngest children in primary school through to secondary students.
The Cuban Revolution made education a priority from the offset. The Literacy Campaign, carried out in the first years after the Revolution, was in itself a revolutionary tour-de-force as it set out to end illiteracy in the country within one year. This amazing feat was not a miracle, but the product of methodology and hard work. The Literacy Campaign, and the values that underpinned it, can help us to understand Cuba’s ideal of education’s power to liberate individuals, which is still felt in its classrooms today.
We visited a range of primary and secondary schools in both urban and rural areas. In each setting we were welcomed by the head teacher, typically a relatively young person who still also taught. In fact it is the law that head teachers still teach. We were invited to ask the head, teachers or students any questions we wished. We talked about the challenges we face as teachers in the UK and asked what the situation was like for Cuba on matters such as workload, funding, behaviour and special educational needs.
Our Cuban colleagues acknowledged that workload is one of the greatest pressures on teachers. To relieve this pressure, teachers in Cuba receive one day a week for planning and marking, as well as four additional hours throughout their working week. The curriculum is nationalised and teachers regularly meet and collaborate for the teaching and development of their subject. If a teacher has a larger class than the usual twenty, they receive higher pay. The teachers’ union is always striving for better pay and conditions: they had recently won a pay rise through working with the Ministry of Education. Teachers can retire at 60, yet we saw many retired teachers proudly still in the classroom because of their love for the job, and they also received a salary on top of their pension.
The classes and schools themselves were so small – it was clear that the relationships between staff and pupils were very strong. There was a wonderful classroom culture with enthusiasm for learning. A big part of school life is centred around interest clubs, usually run by the students themselves, which enables them to pursue passions or hobbies.
Children who struggle to concentrate are encouraged to do more of what they are good at, or interested in, in order to help them cope with classes they find more challenging.
When we were discussing concentration in a primary classroom and explaining how, in the UK, repeated poor behaviour can result in school exclusions, one girl who was nine years old said in astonishment: “but don’t those children need more help and you give them less?”
The insight and values she held towards education are truly a testament to the system.
The biggest school we visited had around 350 students and 50 teachers, which was typical for Cuba. Schools are truly at the heart of the community. With schools of that size it is much easier to develop strong links with parents and the wider locality. Parents meet with teachers twice a month and there is a very open and honest channel of communication. Teachers collaborate with one another for children who are not performing well academically, and the families are involved to provide support.
Schools have psychologists, speech and language therapists, and various others who provide specialist support for pupils and their families. The success of these systems I believe stemmed from the sense of community, which was in turn underpinned by a set of shared values that holds education in high regard. When reflecting on our own education system, I think there is much we can take away from this and strive for.
We visited two art specialist schools which had pupils at both primary and secondary level. The students still follow the same curriculum as regular schools – however, they receive special one-to-one tutoring to pursue their musical or dance talents. Every primary school in the province is visited to select students, and the state allocates places for the most talented. The first school had 198 students and 108 teachers or staff, which is phenomenal. The majority of students in these schools get jobs or pursue their arts professionally. For example, the dancers from one art school are guaranteed a place in the provincial dance group when they finish school.
Since the arts are being forced out of our UK schools and curriculum, it was incredible to see young people being provided with the means to develop their talent as part of their education. For students in our country, this would only be possible if their parents were able to pay for it.
Both of the schools had received instruments through last year’s ‘Play for Cuba’ initiative, and it was very moving to see that the work of the NEU and Cuba Solidarity Campaign had provided individual children with the opportunity to pursue their talent. One young boy, and one of the more shy pupils we encountered, played a wonderful song for us on his trumpet, which was possible because of CSC and our union’s appeal. It really has transformed the lives of children.
Special educational needs
There is excellent provision for special educational needs as Cuba has specialist schools for disabilities ranging from visual impairment to autism. We visited one for visual impairments and disabilities. Like the art specialist schools, children here still follow the national curriculum, and take the same exams, but their education is tailored to their needs. One large room of the school, for example, has been turned into a house with a kitchen, living area and bedroom that enables the children to gain autonomy and independence with their mobility as well as carrying out everyday functions such as cooking, cleaning and washing up. Two of the pupils who benefit from this provision made our group mint tea, and it was a lovely moment to experience their empowerment despite their physical challenges.
We saw the fruits of the NEU and the CSC’s labour across the school in the form of donated Braille machines which were being used by children in the classrooms we visited. However, there were some students who still had to write Braille with a plastic frame and stick, which is a much more time-consuming and difficult method. The older style mechanical machines have fallen out of use in our society and been replaced by more technologically advanced counterparts, so it is a brilliant campaign for the union to continue supporting – we have seen how it has improved the education of some of the most vulnerable children in a country dealing with economic problems.
The teachers’ union (SNTECD) is the biggest union in Cuba with around 439,000 members, 15,000 of whom are retired. Monthly assemblies of workers are the most important element of grassroots organisation, and democratic processes enable the union to work closely with the government and its education ministers, which are very much held accountable by the union.
We felt the impact of the blockade everywhere. Websites and online courses are blocked, schools and universities are unable to source equipment for science labs, and basic materials, even paper, can sometimes be difficult to obtain under the ever changing and recently tightened US blockade. When we visited Pinar Del Río University they told us, “today we have electricity; over the last two months we have had to work with low use of electricity” as a result of fuel shortages following Trump’s increased economic attacks on Cuba.
The United States has recently been preventing international fuel shipments to Cuba and this effects electricity as well as transport. It is hard for us to imagine a school or university having to constantly adapt and function under these challenges. It is admirable what they have achieved for education despite this unjust oppression, and this only demonstrates how Cubans perceive education and its ability to liberate and provide integrity, when they are “being strangled, but have to survive”.
As trade unionists and educational professionals I believe it is imperative we continue to build upon our relationship with Cuba, as not only can we aspire to achieve many of their realities within education, but we can also bring light when they are cast under the shadow of the illegal blockade.