The trick is to catch 'em young

7th February 2003 at 00:00
A British fact-finding team was intrigued by Cuba's revolutionary way of cutting class sizes, reports Andrew Mourant

When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Cuba's population was mostly illiterate. Teachers and students were sent to give farmers and peasants evening lessons in reading and writing. In time, according to Unesco research, Cuban primary children became the best-educated in Latin America.

But in the late 1980s and 1990s ambitious plans to build new schools stalled after thecollapse of the Eastern Bloc. With it went the financial support that helped sustain Cuba in the face of America's economic blockade. Teachers' salaries were frozen for a decade, numbers of entrants to the profession plummeted and class sizes soared towards 50.

Then came a new phase of the revolution. Two years ago a scheme was launched to give primary teachers a five-year apprenticeship starting at the age of 16 and this has become central to the goal of reducing classes to a maximum of 20.

In September, more than 5,300 youngstudents were awarded diplomas following their first year of training.

A party of primary school literacy specialists from Wiltshire has returned from Cuba having seen this plan in action. They were on a professional development trip organised through the British Council.

Fiona Maine, Wiltshire's literacy consultant, says: "At 16-17 they have a year's intensive teacher training while they also study for their 11th grade. While 17 seems very young, they are so confident and enthusiastic.

They do have mentors within the schools. Then when they've done their five years, they can go on and do any university degree they like - they aren't bound to teaching.

"The key phrase there is 'we've done a lot with a little'. Community, passion and vision are the key things that make the Cuban system successful, rather than teaching and methodology."

At key stage 1 level, Cuban children spend about 10 hours on literacy a week. While thesystem may struggle to provide enough textbooks, almost every school has a computer suite and all have TV sets receiving daily educational programmes. In rural or mountainous areas these are run on solar-powered generators.

Children of all ages watch a 15-20 minute programme covering a range of subjects. The aim is that all should receive standard information.

Programmes provide a basis for the rest of thelesson and increase young teachers' subject knowledge.

Ms Maine says: "We were astonished at the extent to which the communities are at the heart of education.

"The government there is always bringing in new initiatives but everyone's behind them - community and education are completely linked. In Cuba, taxi drivers can tell you about what's happening in education. But does someone working in the local shop in this country, who may not have a child at school, know what's going on? One of our translators, a lecturer in English, said that in his summer holiday he had volunteered 200 hours to build extra classrooms.

"On a practical level, our teachers said they were going to start doing things within their schools to build community links. We need to encourage people to come into the classroom to work within schools."

Sharon Ibbotson, who teaches at St Mark'sprimary, in Salisbury, made a start by arranging presentations to governors, parents and children. "The people we met in Cuba were incredibly altruistic. What struck me most was the passion for education. In our capitalist society people aren't terribly altruistic. I don't know how you overcome that," she says.

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