Artcle on Cuba's education system
Campaign News | Friday, 7 February 2003
The Trick Is To Catch 'em Young
The Times Educational Supplement (London)
February 7, 2003
The Trick Is To Catch 'em Young
A British fact-finding team was intrigued by Cuba's revolutionary way of
cutting class sizes, reports Andrew Mourant
When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Cuba's population was mostly
illiterate. Teachers and students were sent to give farmers and peasants
evening lessons in reading and writing. In time, according to Unesco
research, Cuban primary children became the best-educated in Latin America.
But in the late 1980s and 1990s ambitious plans to build new schools stalled
after thecollapse of the Eastern Bloc. With it went the financial support
that helped sustain Cuba in the face of America's economic blockade.
Teachers' salaries were frozen for a decade, numbers of entrants to the
profession plummeted and class sizes soared towards 50.
Then came a new phase of the revolution. Two years ago a scheme was launched
to give primary teachers a five-year apprenticeship starting at the age of
16 and this has become central to the goal of reducing classes to a maximum
In September, more than 5,300 youngstudents were awarded diplomas following
their first year of training.
A party of primary school literacy specialists from Wiltshire has returned
from Cuba having seen this plan in action. They were on a professional
development trip organised through the British Council.
Fiona Maine, Wiltshire's literacy consultant, says: "At 16-17 they have a
year's intensive teacher training while they also study for their 11th
grade. While 17 seems very young, they are so confident and enthusiastic.
They do have mentors within the schools. Then when they've done their five
years, they can go on and do any university degree they like -they aren't
bound to teaching.
"The key phrase there is 'we've done a lot with a little'. Community, passion and vision are the key things that make the Cuban system successful, rather than teaching and methodology."
At key stage 1 level, Cuban children spend about 10 hours on literacy a
week. While thesystem may struggle to provide enough textbooks, almost every
school has a computer suite and all have TV sets receiving daily educational
programmes. In rural or mountainous areas these are run on solar-powered
Children of all ages watch a 15-20 minute programme covering a range of
subjects. The aim is that all should receive standard information.
Programmes provide a basis for the rest of thelesson and increase young
teachers' subject knowledge.
Ms Maine says: "We were astonished at the extent to which the communities
are at the heart of education.
"The government there is always bringing in new initiatives but everyone's
behind them -community and education are completely linked. In Cuba, taxi
drivers can tell you about what's happening in education. But does someone
working in the local shop in this country, who may not have a child at
school, know what's going on? One of our translators, a lecturer in English, said that in his summer holiday he had volunteered 200 hours to build extra
"On a practical level, our teachers said they were going to start doing
things within their schools to build community links. We need to encourage
people to come into the classroom to work within schools."
Sharon Ibbotson, who teaches at St Mark'sprimary, in Salisbury, made a start
by arranging presentations to governors, parents and children. "The people
we met in Cuba were incredibly altruistic. What struck me most was the
passion for education. In our capitalist society people aren't terribly
altruistic. I don't know how you overcome that," she says.