If they can do it in Cuba, What's stopping us here?

Morning Star | Saturday, 24 December 2016 | Click here for original article

MARI BURTON wonders how the Cuban education system creates such confident students, yet in Britain the system is failing

YOU’D be forgiven if, when asked to think of three words associated with Cuba, “education” wasn’t one of them. Indeed, speaking to friends and colleagues about my travelling to Cuba with teachers’ union NUT in October, “cigars,” “communism” and “mojito” were some of the top contenders. Before applying for my place on the delegation I knew almost nothing about the internal structure of the country, at least in the 21st century (as a history teacher by trade, I could answer any question you like on the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Walking out of Havana airport, I had no real idea what to expect of my time investigating the education system of this beautiful Caribbean island, considering only the practical impact of the economic challenges that Cuba, as an economically developing nation, currently faces.

“In our school, we’re so lucky to have iPads and notebooks,” I fervently told my year nine form group the day before I left. “In Cuba they’re so poor — think about how difficult it must be learning things in school!”

Serious faces and adamant (if somewhat indulgent) “yes Miss”es were mumbled all round, as we all dwelt on our good fortune that we can doodle in the back of any number of exercise books when teacher isn’t looking, and stick as many pencils as we liked down the back of the radiators.

So imagine my surprise to find myself sitting at a desk in the library of Manuel Bisbe, a secondary school in the centre of Havana, enthralled by the alternatives the Cuban system can offer British education, and excited by the many possibilities that are available within Cuban schooling.

After being greeted by the set of smiling faces and enthusiastic national songs we had come to expect from the schools we visited, Manuel Bisbe’s headmistress ran us through the daily routine and inner workings of a school that, in many respects, shared the traditional values and objectives of the vast majority of their British counterparts: every child is an individual, education opens opportunities, be the best you can be, etc. The difference was that Manuel Bisbe operates in a system which enabled the school to really live these values, not just emphasise to young people their importance.

Teaching staff were encouraged to work closely with individual families within the community, with monthly meetings being a standard of the school calendar in order to engage parents with their children’s education.

Practical support and advice regarding the raising of teenagers was made available to all and extra classes were available to provide parents with educational support so they could help their children with their school work at home.

Cuban parents are given time off work as standard to ensure they can attend these meetings — and no, this time off does not come out of their wages. As Manuel Bisbe’s headmistress explained, why would you penalise a parent for taking an interest in their child’s education? I thought back to a meeting I had with a colleague two weeks previously, whose last conversation with a parent included the phrase: “I don’t have time to go through my kids’ timetables with them — that’s your job!”

This emphasis of community involvement — perhaps even community responsibility — within secondary education is something that is not always prioritised within our society, despite the hard work of many British schools. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not proposing we all up sticks now and relocate to Cuba.

Indeed, I myself am lucky enough to work in a school which prides itself on its high-profile role within the community, and frequently meet with parents who want nothing more than to ensure their children get the very most out of their time in education. However, we live in a system in which education is frequently used as a political football and the more we are told that “schools should do more” to prepare students for everything from ensuring they understand the risks of obesity to stopping the rise of Isis, the less it feels like the community should have at least some impact on how its children turn out.

Having said this, I cannot deny that the idea of staying late to provide extra classes for parents, on top of the regular workload of planning, marking and extra-curricular activities, filled me with a vague sense of dread, and prompted my next question to our hosts. With all this responsibility, do teachers feel under pressure? The answer was short and surprising — “no.”

The support available for teachers on a “grassroots” level was striking: teachers are given a considerable amount of time and assistance with their planning and plenty of opportunities for professional development — as the head teacher of the school stated: “teachers cannot get tired of studying!” Great emphasis was placed upon teaching staff remaining abreast of a continually updated and modern curriculum, with many teachers holding Masters degrees in their subjects, or being supported by the school in their pursuit of one.

The teacher “evaluation” experience (the Cuban equivalent to Ofsted) was rigorous, but seemed built around the idea of ensuring teaching staff were given enough time and support to prepare their classes adequately, and extensive support if their work was found to be less than satisfactory.

Teachers are evaluated each year, based primarily on two inspections in January and at the end of the school year (their work over the course of the year is also taken into account). For each inspection, the teacher is taken off timetable and given eight hours dedicated preparation time. If necessary, teachers are taken out of their lessons to work on improving their technique until the second inspection. They are given a mentor to help them plan lessons, take smaller “practice classes” and learn how to independently prepare themselves for school.

Certainly, professional expectations of teachers in Cuba are very high, yet the teachers themselves told us they did not feel stressed or pressurised by their jobs. And all this without any target data in sight!

So what about the student experience? Was this atmosphere of high responsibility, low stress present within the measuring of pupil progress? Enquiring about pupil evaluation, I admit I was somewhat alarmed to hear of Manuel Bisbe’s strategies. Huge emphasis is placed upon the continual evaluation of student work through book checks, frequent class tests and homework. Grades are ranked throughout school, with good behaviour or extra-curricular involvement helping pupils push themselves up the rank order. Academic competition forms a very active part of school life, with pupils competing against their classmates or in national competitions as a means of encouraging and maintaining pupil motivation in school work.

Thinking back to my own experiences of secondary school exams, I assumed I knew the answer to my next question to the pupils in front of me: “Do you feel under pressure?” My question met with surprised expressions from the students in front of us; “no, of course not!” was the immediate response.

I am a relatively new teacher — I’m currently embarking on my third year this side of the teacher’s desk — yet already I am all too familiar with the tears, the prolonged absences and the overwhelming anxiety that has become embedded in the school experience for a number of my pupils.

Listening to these Cuban students, so keen to show off their studies and so excited by the prospect of practising their English with us, explain how “as long as I do my best I will succeed” made me think over all those long conversations about resilience, perseverance and how important it is to “just be yourself” and wonder — what are they doing in Cuba to instil this fantastic mindset in their students? What are we missing in England that means so many of our pupils just don’t get that? Sure, my students have access to iPads, wifi and any numbers of apps to help them learn, but 2016 has seen a 35 per cent rise in young people seeking Childline counselling sessions for anxiety, while classroom pressure and exam stress seems to be becoming an accepted aspect of the pupil experience.

How is it that I came to Cuba assuming I’d be admiring their grit in the face of economic hardship, yet I left envying their pupils’ motivation, resilience and level headedness? How is it that, in one of the richest and most developed countries in the world, so many of our young people tiptoe through their education, desperately afraid of tests and poor marks, rather than striding through their schools like giants, excited about what they could achieve if they simply “did their best?”

But our pupils need more than well-meaning teachers chanting this mantra — they need to work in a system that supports their endeavours, that refuses to turn students into statistics and that implements initiatives that enable all children to “do their best,” rather than being a means of showing that whoever’s currently sitting in Downing Street still has an interest in the electorate.

As I type this, sitting back in my one-bed flat, surrounded by precariously balanced piles of Controlled Assessments and mock exams, Manuel Bisbe seems very far away. But I can’t forget what we saw there — and it’s something that the current Department for Education, overworked head teachers and everyone need to take notice of: there is another way to “do” school. There is another effective, less pressurised version of education that produces young people who enjoy their time learning and leave eager to serve their community. There is a system of education that has won a variety of international awards and prides itself on the outreach work that has seen it tackle illiteracy and ignorance in other developing nations.

There is another way we can teach, inspire and work with our young people to ensure that everyone gets the most out of their education — it’s just a shame I had to go half way round the world to see it. But surely, if they can do it in Cuba, what’s stopping us from doing it here?

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