Cuban education expert meets British teachers

Morning Star | Friday, 10 May 2024 | Click here for original article

Cuban school kids Photo: Adam Jones / Creative Commons

Cuban school kids Photo: Adam Jones / Creative Commons

After an inspiring meeting in Bolton Socialist Club addressed by a visitor from the Cuban Ministry of Higher Education, teacher ROBERT POOLE reflects on what we can learn from the education system in Cuba

THE British education system often seems beset by gloom. Teachers are dispirited and alienated from the profession — and so they are leaving in droves. If we try to analyse the cause, it is difficult to pinpoint any one factor.

Is it Ofsted? Is it the relentless pursuit of grades? Is it the deskilling? The polarisation in the absurd “trad v prog” debate? Is it poor behaviour? Low pay and overwork? Is it simply that we feel undervalued? Maybe all of the above?

It was therefore a privilege to meet Dr Santiago Rivera at Bolton Socialist Club earlier this month where he discussed education in Cuba, Cuban life more generally and the challenges faced by the illegal blockade of Cuba.

Rivera is the director of the language teaching strategy at the Cuban Ministry of Higher Education and is very much an expert on all of these matters. The difference between education policy in Cuba and here in Britain could not be more stark.

“Education is a top priority in Cuba,” he said, “along with public health, culture and sports.” There were some mumblings from the audience as people compared this to Britain’s underfunded schools, crumbling NHS and defunding of the arts.

Cuba has free education from elementary school to university. A free university education is something that students in Britain can only dream of these days. Che Guevara once said that “the university is the asset of no-one but the people of Cuba” — in contrast, British universities are run along corporate lines, and education is big business.

Political education is also a key feature of the curriculum in Cuba. Not the watered-down “citizenship” lessons on offer in England, but ones ideologically focused on the individuals’ responsibility to their fellow man and their social obligations to each other obviously seen through the lens of the ruling Communist Party.

This may seem strange to teachers in Britain where being politically neutral is not just seen as a virtue but is a legal requirement. Of course, political neutrality is not really neutral but means not rocking the boat — not doing anything to counter the ideas of the ruling class and capitalism.

The focus on education has had dramatic results in Cuba. Literacy rates are 99 per cent, compared to perhaps 61 per cent in neighbouring Haiti. This can trace its roots back to the Cuban Year of Education where Che Guevara and Fidel Castro sent out literacy brigades into the rural areas of Cuba. Prior to this, education only really existed in the cities of Cuba, was run by the church and was the preserve of the middle and upper classes of society.

A dedication to ensuring that all have access to education continues to this day. Rivera pointed out that there are some areas where there are schools with only one pupil, yet the government still ensures that they have a teacher.

The meeting also heard from Julia Simpkins from the National Education Union (NEU). Simpkins is the international solidarity officer for Bolton NEU and has visited Cuba a number of times.

She spoke of the challenges there but also the relentless spirit to overcome these challenges. Pupils take pride in their equipment to ensure it lasts. Educators, like the rest of the Cuban population, have a “resolver” mentality. Resolver literally means someone who resolves but has a deeper meaning to this island strangled by imperialism.

The astonishing thing is that all these accomplishments have happened in the face of relentless counter-revolutionary, reactionary attacks on this small island nation. Both militarily and economically in the form of the blockade.

“Since the revolution, we have lived under this genocidal blockade,” said Rivera, his voice breaking slightly as he was filled with emotion as he discussed how hard life was in Cuba during Covid-19.

Rivera went from almost tears to fierce passion as he told how “under pressure, people become stronger” — during Covid, the blockade meant that they had none of the desperately needed respirators. So they made their own.

During Covid, they knew they would be denied access to vaccines, so they made not one but three of their own vaccines. He proudly spoke of the missions of Cuban doctors and teachers sent around the world to aid those in need, despite the enormous domestic pressures.

What shone through was his optimism — something I had not seen from British educators for a long time. Despite everything he was sure that the blockade would be lifted and a new Cuba would emerge. Providing solidarity and support to Cuba is essential if this is to happen. Both material support and solidarity.

I am lucky to belong to a trade union that takes pride in its international solidarity work and I would encourage everyone to join the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, donate to their medical appeal and join a delegation to visit Cuba if they can — I hope to do so soon and report back.

Towards the end of the meeting, a guest from the audience spoke up to say that what we had learned that night about the education system in Cuba puts our own country to shame. This rightly received a round of applause.

Robert Poole is Bolton NEU assistant district secretary, editor of Education for Tomorrow and a member of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

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