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Che's OK, but we've never had it so good

I must confess I have always thought of Che Guevara as something of a joke. When I was a student, every self-respecting would-be lefty had a Che poster on the wall, his moody face set against a solid red background. Few knew who he was; what we did know was that as long as you hated Barclays and loved Che you were on the right side of the generation gap.

So imagine my surprise on a recent trip with the British Council to schools in Cuba. Every class had rows of neatly dressed, polite and attentive students; every classroom was spartan but orderly, and each one had a portrait of Che on the back wall - and usually in the entrance foyer as well.

Often during our visit, the teacher invited the class to sing us an impromptu song, which they did in an unselfconscious and hauntingly beautiful way. These were songs of the revolution. Our government might wrestle with what to put in the citizenship test and Gordon might sweat over how to put the united into kingdom, but for Cuba there is no issue. There is an official version of Cuban culture, history and politics; it's what is taught in schools, without question and without irony.

For a short time, the certainty felt enviably comforting. Then I woke up, imagined what our media studies teacher would do with the Che propaganda film being shown in one primary school we visited, and thanked my lucky stars that I lived in a country that encourages kids to think for themselves and form their own opinions based on evidence. GCSE examiners, please take note.

Cuba has a maximum class size of 30, with two teachers in every class. That's the good news. The bad news is that they have a teacher shortage, partly because people can earn more in the burgeoning tourist industry where they gain access to foreign currency - tempting when teachers earn the equivalent of pound;12 a month. Six computers per secondary school, no internet and no photocopier either, brings home the richness of resources in British schools.

It's no surprise that in comparison with us, a Cuban headteacher has less power than our school cat. Staffing, budget, buildings and every aspect of the curriculum are decided by the ministry. One of the ways in which teacher shortages have been tackled is to produce banks of videos to be shown for whole lessons. It's like being in pre-local management of schools (LMS) days, topped up with a double dose of Bakerite national curriculum prescription and Blunketted micro-management of teaching.

Government education policy in the UK is always like being taken on a mystery tour: you get hints of where you are going, then the fog suddenly lifts and you understand where you have arrived. LMS is only now taking on full meaning, with schools governing themselves through foundation, trust or academy status; light-touch inspections really do seem to spell the end of Woodhead's sledgehammer Ofsted, giving way to independence with intelligent accountability; primary schools are finally able to stick a nose from under the blanket of the national strategies to breathe a little creativity again; and yes, the reform of the key stage 3 curriculum is giving teachers back the freedom to design a curriculum that suits their students.

We moan about the extent of our accountability, but it takes a trip to Cuba to realise the extraordinary degree to which the Government is now giving schools the freedoms we have craved for so long. We had better use these freedoms wisely to deliver the improved standards the Government craves, or we will soon find the pendulum of control swings back again.

Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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