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AS I reflect on my recent visit to Cuba as part of the National Education Union’s delegation of teachers, I am struck by the overwhelming sense of community that we witnessed throughout the time we were there.
Our delegation lasted just six days, but in that short space of time were able to visit a number of schools and organisations and learnt so much from everyone we met. The experience was very humbling and one I’ll never forget.
The heart of any community is the people and the families within it; in Cuba all are in agreement that education is not just a basic right, but it is a way to be part of and contribute to a meaningful society. It is about sharing what you have with others and making a better life for everyone.
Cuba provides free education for all, from cradle to grave. Parents are involved in all aspects of their children’s education. An Educate Your Child programme is in place for parents who stay at home with their children and this follows the same informal learning through play approach as is provided in the Day Care Centres for children under five.
During our visit to a primary school in Havana, where we saw the youngest children performing a dance, we were told that family members participate, including by making the costumes themselves. There was also a charming display of paintings and models of villages which had been completed by parents and children as part of a project to represent Cuba.
Parents and family members are also involved in running interest clubs which take place in the afternoons; for example, a recent pottery project had taken place in one of the primary schools that we visited.
We heard about the parent-teacher committees in primary schools which encourage open communication between the school and parents and allow parents to offer advice to the school. Monthly meetings are held between a parent and their child’s teacher to promote a dialogue between parents and teachers and help families to assist their child with learning at home. There are “schools for parents” where parents learn about pedagogy and psychology in order to help them understand their role in their child’s education.
Education is given high status in Cuba; ideally all families aspire for their children to attend university. Cuba has a system in place which predicts how many jobs will be available at the end of each course and this determines how many spaces will be available on each course. The university will then work with students to help them find a job at the end of the course. During our visit to a primary school in Pinar del Rio we were told that trainee teachers will often go on to work in one of the schools where they complete their placements. This level of pre-planning ensures that university education has a real value and meaning and contributes to Cuba’s low unemployment rates which in turn will have a positive impact on local communities.
Most people in Cuba are well informed on education. It is often a topic of conversation among community members, who have a good understanding of the education system and are also able to share their opinion and influence policy via their local municipality representatives, who are elected to government.
But the community spirit is not just seen between schools and families, but also within the school system itself. Teachers collaborate together at every level; in a primary school in Pinar del Rio there are eight retired teachers who still work at the school in a reduced capacity to support young teachers. The wealth of experience of these teachers is valued and respected.
In a secondary school in Havana, teachers explained to us the importance of collaboration; every week teachers from each department attend a training day held across the municipality, bringing teachers of a specialism together. Meetings are held within a local school and are led by a lead teacher in the municipality. They discuss pedagogy and results and it is also an opportunity for professional development and further study towards Masters degrees and PhDs.
Outside the education system the community spirit is thriving; during our visit we saw members of the public out in the streets listening to music, dancing and generally enjoying life together.
We were invited to a meeting of a Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (one of a network of local neighbourhood organisations) where we learnt about the various community projects and activities that the members are involved in. We also heard that the community are at the centre of the redevelopment in their local area. When regeneration is carried out it is carefully managed and the community are involved, with their voices being heard.
Another organisation that is crucial to the building of community relations in Cuba is the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) which was established in 1960. The organisation has made great strides for women’s rights in Cuba and was heavily involved in Cuba’s Literacy Campaign and development of the 1975 Family Code. At a meeting with the FMC, I was struck by the statement that members of the FMC go into local communities to find out what specific issues there are for women and families in their locale and then work together to find solutions to these problems.
The community spirit we experienced in Cuba was in stark contrast to many of the communities here in the UK, where countless people are disillusioned with our government representatives and the systems we have in place. Where policies are generated at the top and disseminated to the workforce with little or no input from those working within the field. And where teachers in particular face constant curriculum changes and new initiatives which seemingly have little positive impact on children’s learning but only increase workload, stress and anxiety.
We have a lot to learn from Cuba in terms of the value that is placed on education and the way in which parents, teachers, unions and local representatives collaborate to make changes to policy and curriculum. The Cubans are not naive; they know that what they have is not perfect. But they also know that they are able to make positive changes and work together with the Ministry of Education to achieve their shared goal of a meaningful education for all. This is an ideal that would be wholeheartedly welcomed in the UK.
Lucy Coleman is an early years teacher in Oxfordshire.
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