“Teachers are respected and children, valued for their individuality, have a real sense of joy at being in school. But for more than 60 years Cuba has faced the US blockade. There is no doubt that this has a severe impact on schools.”
Cuba Solidarity Campaign National Secretary and NEU member Bernard Regan reports on the NEU’s half-term delegation to Havana and Pinar del Rio.
In the last week of October members of the National Education Union (NEU) visited Cuban schools and spoke to fellow teachers and trade unionists about the challenges facing education in Cuba whilst suffering a 60-year old US blockade and the aftermath of COVID-19.
In Pinar del Rio, we saw for ourselves the impact of Hurricane Ian which hit the western Cuban province on 28 September. The category 3 storm had blown roofs off houses, uprooted trees, flooded roads, cut the electricity supply and destroyed many of the local crops including the tobacco used to produce the famous Cuban cigars. Pinar’s university was acting as a temporary home for some families while their houses were being restored.
Despite the challenges, more than 4,000 volunteers were mobilised from across the island to help repair the damage. When we arrived, two weeks after the hurricane, nearly 50 per cent of the electricity was back and confidence was high that full restoration of supplies would be achieved in a matter of weeks.
Our group visited two primary schools, two secondary schools, a specialist music school, two schools for the blind and visually impaired, a school for autistic children and a university. Alongside this they met national and local members of the SNTECD (the Cuban education union) and the CTC (Cuban TUC).
Throughout the pandemic the Cuban education system continued with home based learning, and students received lessons through two dedicated education channels. Teachers carried out home checks to ensure children had the resources to follow the programmes. Children were now back at school.
What shone through in all the institutions we visited was the quality of the relationships between teachers and children, children and children, and all of the staff. Whilst the schools are desperately short of material resources – even simple things such as paper and pencils – the commitment to education is incredible.
Around 24 per cent of the government’s budget is devoted to education. This commitment was very evident in the distribution of human resources in the sector. At the Dora Alonso autism school we saw pupil teacher ratios and staffing to put those in Britain to shame. A school for 108 pupils provided 13 classrooms, a specialist physical therapy room, 47 teachers, four speech therapists, three psychologists and a physiotherapist. In addition there were 24 non-teaching staff, four of whom were ex-pupils.
The school took a broad approach to the tasks they faced, offering monthly meetings for the families, including workshops for the parents, grandparents and siblings as well as home visits. Families could also meet up for respite “breathing days”.
The personal commitment and care shown by all the school staff towards the children and their families left many of our group in tears at the incredible humanity they witnessed. The collective aim is to reintegrate the children full time into the appropriate age-related schools which they continued to attend part time whilst at the Dora Alonso School.
In the rural Viñales valley, the group visited a primary school with less than 15 children in each age group. An English teacher had recently joined the staff from her previous primary school where she had been the sole teacher for one child in the school. When the child was old enough to travel they joined children at the nearest local primary school. In Britain rural schools like this would be closed down and the children bussed to other schools.
Music is everywhere in Cuba and this extends to schools. In Havana’s Manuel Saumell Music School the delegation saw children playing a range of instruments, performing both traditional Cuban styles and classical pieces. This scene was repeated in Pinar del Rio where children in the secondary school of performing arts put on a show which culminated in everyone, visitors included, joining a conga out of the room and round the school.
There is no doubt that education is highly valued in Cuba. Teachers are respected and children, valued for their individuality, have a real sense of joy at being in school. But for more than 60 years Cuba has faced the US blockade. There is no doubt that this has a severe impact on schools.
Even the most basic resources, including paper, pencils and computers, are in short supply. Special schools are hit in a variety of ways and many children who need cochlea implants or electric wheelchairs cannot get them. That is why the Viva La Educacíon Campaign was launched by the NEU and CSC, and why it is so important to support it, to help send material aid to Cuban schools.
I hope that every reader will contribute to this campaign and give generously. You support the last fundraising push to fill two containers of educational aid before they are shipped to Cuba in April.
In their own words
“The Cuban education system promotes cultural activities and encourages children to pursue a path of musical excellence and this is provided for them. Instrumental tuition is not dependent on being able to pay for it as in other education systems and the result is a wonderfully rich cultural experience.”
Steve Adderley, Special Education and Post 16 Teacher, Wirral, after visiting the Manuel Saumell Music School, Havana.
“Members of the community get involved in all activities and family members are part of the school. They give staff early warning if something is going on and let staff know how to help.”
Merike Williams, Early Years Teacher, Stockton, after visiting the International Union of Students Primary School (UIE).
“Due to the nature of the blockade the school has massive difficulties in securing professional equipment and hindered by high costs. Even as they get innovative and create versions of their own, such as adapting guitar strings to play violin, they were forced to close their ballet school due to high costs but are hoping to re-open again soon.”
Dalian Adofo, Communications Officer, Brent, after visiting the Raul Sanchez Vocational Arts School, Pinar del Rio.
- Bernard Regan is the National Secrtary of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC). You can follow the CSC on Facebook, twitter and Instagram.
- You can donate to the Viva La Educacion – Educational Aid for Cuba fundraiser here.