Cuban schools encourage the working class

Campaign News | Saturday, 19 January 2019

NEU delegate ARETHA GREEN notices that through art, literature, and the socialist ideology present in communal learning techniques, all Cuban children are empowered

During our six-day National Education Union delegation to Cuba, my overwhelming impression was of the agency and meaningful involvement of students in their own education.

This was consistently evident, and obviously at the heart of Cuban pedagogy. Since the revolution in 1959, Cubans have fought for not only bread, but also roses.

Students in Cuba are a direct product of these roses; their ability to be an effective part of the conversations surrounding their learning is a demonstration of the empowerment the revolution has continued to bring the Cuban people.

Nowhere was this more evident than when visiting the final school of the trip, a secondary school in Pinar del Rio, so much so that I could not help but feel a little heartbroken for my own students in Britain.

A member of the delegation asked the students how many of them wanted to go to university. Every student put up their hand, in a hall of around 200.

In spite of the blockade, children in Cuba have grown up with purpose and aspiration: bread and roses. The bread has nourished them physically; the economic rewards of the revolution have ensured that unemployment remains relatively low, at around 2 per cent. Housing, careers and healthcare are all accessible.

However, it is the roses that have made the educational opportunities available to Cuban children so special.

They have empowered them in a way that bread alone cannot, and are plentiful in Cuba: the quality of education, the communal attitude, the collective consciousness. Cuban students have active agency in education; they are empowered to contribute meaningfully to their learning, to be part of the conversation. The student voice in Cuba is a credit to its roses and to the society that nurtured them.

As a result of the blockade, Cuba has, at times, struggled for bread. It has crippled their economy and limited access to basic provisions.

In spite of this, roses are not seen as a lavish addition, an added extra; they are as fundamental as the bread. Collective consciousness is encouraged and enriched through a national structure of student representation across all Cuban schools.

A diverse group of students are included within this student voice. They are empowered by other students and teachers. They see themselves as equals, among other students and in conversation with the teachers.

They contribute effectively to curriculum design and content as part of a two-way dialogue about their learning.

Children’s agency in education is largely dependent on the ethos surrounding the role of education.

In Britain, despite the best intentions of many teachers, the ethos is overwhelmingly one of control, influencing the working class to “know their place.”

In education, working-class children are prepared for low-skilled occupations through the socialisation of capitalist society’s norms and values: obeying authority; coping with boredom and alienation, meritocracy and conformity.

Student voice in Britain is a reflection of our perception of the role of education. Students are not empowered through external school factors such as art, music and literature to have true agency in society, particularly in education.

Even if encouraged to be involved in their learning, British students are largely not equipped or empowered to do this. They have been socialised to not question throughout their lives. They have no roses.

Usually, student voice in Britain is in the form of an annual survey. Students are required to answer the questions anonymously. It is not a dialogue, but a customer satisfaction survey.

The students are often explicitly referred to as “customers” and they are treated as such, as passive consumers of education rather than active participants.

The questions are corporate in nature, and the student responses are not regarded as meaningful.

Sometimes, in Britain, small groups of student bodies are used as a voice, such as student councils. Although this arguably may act as better practice than the survey responses, students who are not equipped by society to feel valued will not be able to effectively contribute.

Middle-class students inevitably volunteer for these student council positions as they have the cultural capital to firstly apply and secondly to be effective in the role.

Along with the typical middle-class volunteers, the teachers sometimes select some working-class children, with behaviour issues, in the hope that becoming a role model for others will help their own behaviour.

Regardless, it is a token position for the students involved, an Ofsted tick box to be checked.

In Cuba, the student voice is at the heart of the hidden curriculum. It is a cornerstone in the education of values and skills to enrich children. In Britain, emphasis tends to be placed on the formal curriculum; the pure delivery of “quality” teaching and learning, measured through standardised testing.

From my time spent in Cuba, it was obvious to me that enriching the child and empowering them as a “whole person” through the hidden curriculum was a central and consistent focus.

Qualified teachers, in every classroom, carry out this process, rather than increasing numbers of unqualified teachers and staff who are not educators, as we have seen in England as a result of academisation.

Cuban students are empowered, they have a voice, and they are architects of their own education. Their voice is also one voice across Cuba. Children have the same uniform, a visual representation of unity among students rather than competition, and they belong to the same school students’ union.

It is clear to the students what their role is in their own education, as it is the same for all Cuban children.

Based on the strict hierarchies of capitalism, our education system encourages educators to perceive working-class children as having inferior norms and values — less cultural capital — which then leads them to educational failure.

Under capitalism, high culture is seen as more valuable. Students with high cultural interests (theatre, classical music, elite sports and elaborate language codes, for example) are seen as more “intelligent,” hard-working or academic.

When capitalism is removed, children are perceived as equals and nurtured equally. Cuban children understand that their voices are valued equally, in the absence of hierarchy.

Because of their low cultural capital, British working-class children are alienated from their educational setting. We have allowed a system to continue in which working-class parents are alienated from their children’s education; they do not engage with the corporate aims of the school.

The children speak in a language different from that of their teachers and their textbooks and are trained to seek immediate, rather than deferred, gratification, as middle-class children are.

Working-class children do not have access to the cultural capital of the middle classes, and are therefore alienated from student voice participation. This is something we as educators must fight to change because, until we do, the education of our young people is diminished.

“Fidel showed us that another world is possible,” were the words of the union representative at the University of Pinar del Rio to the delegation. Another world is possible for us too, but we must first cultivate our roses for the sake of our young people, and of their education.

Aretha Green is a member of Hampshire NEU.

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