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A window into another world of education

In the first of a series of articles from a recent NEU delegation to Cuba, MEGAN QUINN reflects on some of the sharp differences between the Cuban education system and our own

IN A WEEK full of meetings and school visits, it was the few hours which we spent at a secondary school in Pinar del Rio which seem to be at the forefront of my mind when anyone asks me about my recent visit to Cuba. 

On arrival and by way of greeting, we enjoy a series of joyful and vibrant dance performances. This seems, in our brief experience, to be the Cuban way. During our many visits to a variety of schools it is strikingly clear that this is an education system which holds art, creativity and expression at its heart. 

Following this we filter into a large auditorium, which is full of teachers and students who are dressed immaculately in the white and yellow secondary school uniform worn throughout the country. We take our seats as the presentations continue. A young, female student chairs the first session, which focuses on recent learning explorations of Global Development, with the sort of confidence that puts everyone at ease. Further shows of Cuban music, dance and poetry follow before an opportunity for dialogue begins. 

As has been the case during all of our school visits, we are invited to ask questions about the school and the Cuban education system which prompts much interesting discussion, but it is when a member of our delegation asks if the Cuban students have any questions of their own that things get really interesting. 

One student asks if the British education system is similar to theirs in Cuba. As secondary teachers begin to explain the different subjects on offer at their schools, one teacher points out that the current funding crisis in Britain means that many schools can no longer offer the kind of opportunities in music, dance and art which are clearly considered of great importance here in Cuba. Talk then moves to focus on the testing regime which impacts so heavily in the UK, dictating much of the learning which goes on. One member of the delegation explains that her son sat his GCSEs in the summer, and in order to complete his 10 GCSEs he sat 27 exams within around three weeks. Gasps from students and teachers alike ripple throughout the auditorium as this information is translated.

The shock is so strong and tangible that it leads eventually to collective laughter spreading throughout the room. 

But, as another member of the delegation is quick to point out once things have settled, this reality is a huge cause for concern and something which the National Education Union, along with groups such as More Than a Score, are continuously working to address. The obsession with testing, the way results are used to hold schools to account and the restrictive impact this has on learning, leaves many young people in the UK leaving school feeling like failures, having not had the opportunity to discover and develop their strengths and without any idea of where to go next. 

The Cuban students hear that mental health issues are on the rise for young people in Britain and that many teachers link this, in part, to the pressures that come with a system that neglects the learning process and is so focused on outcomes. This could not be more different from Cuba where teachers feel consulted on curriculum changes and students enjoy a truly broad, creative and relevant curriculum. In Cuba, there is a commitment to developing a lifelong love of learning and a deep understanding of its relevance in life, which runs central to the whole education system. As gasps ripple once more, my mind returns to Britain and I think about the individual schools and teachers who work tirelessly in such difficult circumstances to provide meaningful and relevant learning experiences for the young people in their care. 

Next, a Cuban student wants to know if young people in Britain feel safe in their communities. One delegate explains that last year there was a stabbing in her local area. More gasps follow at the news of this tragic loss of a young life and all its potential. I feel my thoughts turning to the incidents of knife crime which have devastated the lives of families in the London borough where I teach and I wonder what reaction it would cause were these Cuban youngsters to hear the desperate reality of knife crime in Britain and the destruction it is causing. This complex issue requires urgent attention and focus and, though complex, it seems impossible to separate it from the countless difficulties currently facing communities, many of which link to austerity measures, ever dwindling provision and huge lack of public investment.

Although Cuba is a poor island with its own issues, not least the impact of the US blockade, it is a place where the level of income inequality which is part of life in Britain does not exist. It is also a place where over 50 per cent of the national budget is spent on health and education and where these public services are considered to be human rights for every person alive. During our visit, we spent an evening with a Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR) group in Havana. Over eight million Cubans are members of a CDR and these groups operate at a neighbourhood level contributing to ensuring the needs of community members are met, issues are addressed and that local neighbourhoods are safe places to live. 

The discussions continue with more thoughts shared and topics covered. As the session draws to a close, I realise that we have spent well over an hour, in a room full of students and teachers, just sitting, sharing ideas and learning from each other. And as I look around the room, I can’t help but feel a sense of sadness as I struggle to imagine this scene being replicated in a school in the UK. The system-wide obsession with constant progress within the confines of a narrow, restrictive curriculum, with one eye always on the next high stakes test, leaves young people within Britain’s schools in desperate need of this sort of space and time. I am left with the thought that Cuban schools seem to be achieving exactly the sort of widespread, high academic results which are sought by the British system but, in Cuba, it is a commitment to collaboration, collectivism, creativity and love which is leading to these enviable outcomes. 

After many thanks and well wishes, as well as a chance to take a few photographs, we leave and begin to pile back onto our minibus, ready for our next school visit. Our guide and translator, whose skills, focus and patience have enabled us countless valuable exchanges throughout the week, addresses the group before we head off. He tells us that he feels that the most important part of this morning was the opportunity for the Cuban students to ask us questions, which he feels has given them a sense of perspective and an appreciation of the many opportunities they enjoy. 

The morning, for me, has led to the all too familiar acknowledgement of the many difficulties and challenges faced by educators in the UK, but it has also fuelled my determination that British students deserve a system which places them, and their needs, at its centre. Cuban students seem to sit right at the heart of their impressive education system and, having had a brief glimpse into this world, I leave Cuba with the knowledge that another education system is possible. 

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