Eye-witness to socialism: school education in Cuba

Cuban socialism has not only brought full literacy to the people, but has also pioneered new techniques in learning and reduced senior school class sizes to 15!

On Friday 12 January, Francisco Fereira Báez, the Cuban First Deputy Education Minister, addressed a joint meeting of the London Metropolitan University and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign held in Holloway Road, North London.

We reproduce below a summary of his excellent and informative speech on the subject of Cuban school education, because it will certainly demonstrate to parents, teachers and students at Britain’s state schools what a massive improvement there could be expected to be in children’s learning and school experience generally after the working class in this country overthrows its money-grubbing capitalist ruling class and establishes socialism.

Comrade Fereira started by displaying the following statistical chart showing how education had improved in Cuba since the revolution in 1959.

1958 2006

Number of teachers (000’s) 22.8 310.5

Percentage of 6-11 year old attending school 55.1 100

Percentage of illiterate adults (aged over 15) 23.6 0.2

Education budget per pupil (pesos) 79.4 4,998.8

Comrade Fereira continued as follows:

“The Cubans very much took to heart the words of José Martí, who said that no social equality is possible without equality of education and culture.

“The revolution of 1959 was followed in 1961 by a national literacy campaign, which succeeded in eradicating illiteracy.

“Between 1959 and 1961, the Cuban people created the conditions for universal secondary education. There took place a major programme of school building, as secondary schools cannot as readily be established in ordinary houses as can primary schools. Today, all children go to secondary school, and all children who complete their secondary education have the opportunity to go on to further education [A Level equivalent]. All those who graduate from further education can go on to higher education [universities].

“Nowadays, Cuban education is distinguished by the campaign we have mounted to ensure that all children will maximise their potential for learning. We recognise that a child who comes from a stable background and whose parents are both fully educated will tend to do better in education that those who are relatively disadvantaged. We are determined that our schools will be able to ensure that children are able to overcome any disadvantaged background, for if the schools cannot resolve this problem, who will?

“With this aim in mind, we have introduced throughout all Cuban schools an audio-visual programme to support teaching, and there is a TV set in every classroom for the purposes of transmitting the video part of this programme. In order to achieve this, we had to bring electricity to some 2,400 schools (15 percent of the total) that did not have it before, and we have done this largely through the means of installing solar panels.

“We also have a programme of computerisation, and IT is taught throughout the educational system. We have been developing computer software of our own for use in supporting learning, with content reflecting different levels of education.

“Cuban education reaches 99.5 percent of children even before they reach primary school at the age of 6. Of these, 70.9 percent are taught by their mothers at home under our Educa a tu hijo [educate your child] programme – because we train mothers to do this and supply them with the necessary educational materials. For the 29.1 percent of children whose mothers’ work commitments prevent them from implementing the pre-school programme, there are kindergartens where children learn the same things mothers are teaching at home.

“As for primary schools, 88.1 percent of classes have 20 pupils or fewer. The classes that do have 20-30 pupils are all assigned two teachers each. The teachers follow their class all the way up the school, as we find this helps to ensure they are able to attend to their pupils’ social needs as well as their educational ones.

“In secondary schools, we have implemented a radical new approach. Class sizes never exceed 15, and one teacher teaches all subjects (except art, PE and foreign languages, for which there are specialist teachers).

“How is this possible? How is it possible for maths teachers to find themselves teaching history and vice versa? It is only possible because all lessons are available on videos that have been created by teams of educationalists. All these videos were trialled before being put to use in our classrooms to ensure they deliver good education in an acceptable form which is conducive to learning. The classroom teacher’s role is as a facilitator of learning, and the teacher is therefore much better able to deal with any learning difficulties which any pupil may be experiencing.

“In the pre-university schools, class sizes go up to 30. We also strongly encourage the internet as a means to learning. We do not, however, promote indiscriminate use of the internet, but instead have developed an intranet system which makes available to pupils all educational material that may be of interest to them in their pursuit of knowledge and understanding. At this level, there are also specialist schools for the arts (music, theatre, dance, art) attended at present by over 16,000 students.

“I would mention that 100 percent of children with special needs receive education appropriate for those needs.

“In order to implement the changes mentioned above, Cuba has had to train an extra 60,000 teachers over the last five years. After one year’s teacher training course, our student teachers work in the classroom and simultaneously pursue university studies part time. And, incidentally, our trained teachers do not only teach in Cuba! No less than 2.4 percent of our GDP goes to providing teachers to other countries – some 25,000 Cuban teachers are engaged in programmes of assistance abroad, especially spreading our literacy programme Yo sí puedo [Yes, I can].”

In response to questions from the floor, Comrade Fereira went on to make a number of further interesting observations:

1. In Cuba there is one teacher for every 36.8 inhabitants. In the UK, there is one teacher for every 802 inhabitants.

2. In addressing the question of discipline in schools, Comrade Fereira pointed out that the children themselves take responsibility for discipline through their own organisations – which they control – such as the Pioneers. These children’s organisations are very powerful, organising Congresses at school, municipal, provincial and national level.

The Ministry of Education is fully accountable to the students’ National Congress, where school students say what they like and make their points to the country’s highest leadership. Fidel himself always attends these congresses on behalf of the Cuban Communist Party.

Comrade Fereira recalled that, at one Pioneer Congress, a participant put up his hand to protest that as a blind person he was being prevented from being trained as a physiotherapist. This of course was not a matter for the Minister of Education, who was present at the Congress to answer questions, but for the Minister of Health. Within ten minutes, the Minister of Health appeared and a debate on this question ensued. At the end of the debate, Fidel intervened on behalf of the blind boy and said he should receive the training he wanted.

3. Comrade Fereira was asked to describe a typical school day. He said that children’s school days are carefully planned to ensure that they have a variety of activities, in a way that is attractive to the children, with art classes and PE as well as Pioneer activity, interspersed with classroom activities to minimise tiredness and boredom.

There was also a question about Cuba’s municipal universities, which Comrade Fereira addressed, although he did point out that his responsibilities were confined to pre-university-level education. He said that in Cuba today, for example, 60,000 teachers were studying while working. Obviously, they need their university to be close to their place of work.

Doctors, too, are trained on the principle of combining study and work. In their first year, when they are studying such things as physiology, they are also working as medical auxiliaries to a doctor, so they learn from him or her and from the patients. Studying a plastic skeleton is different to examining a real patient and helping to set a broken bone. The medical course lasts six years, and, when they qualify, Cuban doctors are fully experienced.

Comrade Fereira pointed out: “Naturally this system has demanded our setting up medical schools in every municipality. University education cannot be centralised in Havana, as it was before 1959 – it has to extend to every locality. We have 169 municipalities, each one with a higher education centre – our micro-universities.”

4. Finally, Comrade Fereira addressed the question of redundancies in Cuba, although this was clearly no part of his remit. Somebody from the floor had asked what would happen to the sugar workers who had been made redundant as a result of the rationalisation of Cuba’s sugar industry.

Comrade Fereira pointed out that these redundancies had been caused by the fact that the high price of oil (sugar production is very energy-dependent), combined with a fall in the world price of sugar to a mere 6c a pound, had meant that the least modern factories were operating at a loss – a loss that had to be borne by all the Cuban people. Therefore, these factories were closed down. The workers, however, continued to receive their full pay (at the expense of the efficient factories, which remained productive) while they went into full-time education in order to re-skill for new occupations.

By way of conclusion, Comrade Fereira stressed again Cuba’s fulfilment of its internationalist duties on the educational front. There are still 800m illiterates in the world – 20 percent of the world’s population. Even in rich countries, there are people who are illiterate, and Cuba has helped New Zealand to develop a literacy programme for Maoris, which is now being adapted for use among native Americans in Canada. Even in Spain, in Seville alone there are 400,000 illiterates whom Cuba is helping to educate.

A poor country like Cuba is only able to achieve all this because of its socialist system.