Education in CUBA
Cuba is undergoing rapid change. What is the education system like and what are the options with international schools? Beatrice Pignatelli, an English teacher based in Havana, puts Winter’s readers in the picture…
“Cuba is a small country in size and big in world prestige”, said French writer José Fort. With only 11.2 million inhabitants, the country’s social system boasts an impressive track record of widespread school enrolment and attendance, an almost universal adult literacy rate, and results in standardised tests that exceed those of more developed countries across the Americas and the Caribbean.
Since the 1959 revolution, the Cuban government has continued to invest a substantial part of its budget in education, and has been successful in advancing gender equality and in reaching rural and disadvantaged populations. Its triumphs, however, have not come without their trials. Cuba is currently recovering from the prolonged effects of a severe economic crisis and a long-term blockade on trade, which have resulted in dwindling resources and a deteriorating infrastructure.
"...Cuba is a growing magnet for business and cultural exchange..."
Recent changes within the Cuban government, and the warming of Cuba-United States relations, ending a 54-year stretch of hostility between the two nations, have thrown Cuba onto the world stage, converting this relatively untouched nation into a growing magnet for business and cultural exchange. While the country opens itself up to new global and economic influences, its task will be to adapt to a more diverse and open market, at the same time as maintaining and improving the standards of universal access and quality that its education system is recognised for across the world.
The state system
The Cuban education system is operated entirely by the government, meaning that all schools, apart from certain international institutions, are regulated by the Cuban Ministry for Education. State education, at all levels, is subsidised by the Cuban government, and there are no tuition fees or costs for books or uniforms.
Education is compulsory for children from the ages of 6 to 16, although most children attend Kindergarten, ‘círculos infantiles’, before starting primary school. There are both privately run and state-run ‘círculos’, though parents often prefer to send children to private institutions where the care and conditions are often of better quality.
For all school levels, the academic year begins in September and runs until the first week of July. Cuban children are often enrolled in local schools, at primary and basic secondary level, and are most likely to walk rather than take public transport, which can be unreliable and crowded during rush hour.
At secondary and pre-school level some students opt to study in rural weekly-boarding schools located outside Havana. In this case, transport is provided by the school. Regardless of age or sex, Cuban students wear a standardised school uniform with different coloured scarves or trousers/skirts denoting grade level.
Primary education – ‘educación primaria’
Students attend primary school for six years. The first years of the standardised curriculum focus on Spanish language (reading, writing and oral expression) and Mathematics. History, Geography and Natural Sciences are introduced in the 5th grade. Some English is taught, although it’s quite limited, and for non-Spanish-speaking students no language support is provided.
The holistic approach to education in Cuba combines traditional subjects with practical activities including gardening, wood and metal crafts, and handicrafts. The curriculum also includes a range of other less traditional subjects such as ‘The World in Which We Live’, which fosters the children’s knowledge about nature and its protection. Class sizes are small and usually vary between 15 and 20 students. At this stage, evaluation is a continuous process, and results are categorised as ‘excellent’, ‘very well done’, ‘good’, ‘regular’ and ‘poor’, rather than by using numerical grades.
Basic secondary education – ‘educación secundaria basica’
Children attend basic secondary school from age 12 to 15, which includes grades 7 through 9. There are two different forms of secondary school: urban and rural, the latter providing free weekly boarding. There are also vocational art schools and sport schools, which compliment the standardised programme of studies with other subjects. At this level, Literature, Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Civil Education are introduced into the curriculum. Each school has approximately three weeks of testing a year and average class sizes vary from 20 to 30 pupils.
Pre-university and technical education – ‘educación pre-universitaria y educación técnica’
At the end of basic secondary education, pupils can choose between pre-university education and technical and professional education. Students who complete pre-university education are awarded the Bachillerato diploma. Technical training leads to two levels of qualification: skilled worker and middle-level technician. Graduates of the technical training courses with good grades can opt to continue their training at technological institutes.
At pre-university level, the course content is reasonably comprehensive, but standards and styles of teaching may vary between institutions. Social sciences have a strong Marxist-Leninist focus and literature is dominated by the work of Cuban and Latin American authors; Western authors are generally excluded from the syllabus.
Higher education – ‘educación superior’
Students must have completed secondary school and passed an entrance examination to be admitted to an undergraduate degree. Cuba's higher education sector has a number of public universities and other international higher education institutions, including the renowned ELAM (Latin American School of Medicine) and the EICTV (International School of Film and Television). In addition to the traditional university courses, there are a number of ‘distance-learning’ degree programmes that offer evening and weekend courses.
International schools in Cuba
International schools are not as abundant in Cuba as in neighbouring countries. Concentrated in the country’s capital, Havana, international schools primarily serve the expat and diplomatic community. Some offer a full Kindergarten to Grade 12 education, whereas others may specialise in particular age groups.
International schools follow a variety of curriculum models from the UK, France or Spain, or are based on a modified national curriculum, and cater for a range of nationalities. Primary instruction is usually given in English, French, or Spanish, although there is a strong emphasis on the study of other modern languages. Given that the majority of students enrolled will be children of diplomats and expats, international schools ensure that they are prepared for globally accepted qualifications such as the IGCSE and International Baccalaureate, to facilitate reintegration into the education systems in other countries.
Admission and enrolment procedures vary from school to school. Members of the diplomatic community are often given a high priority at the English-speaking International School of Havana and other applications will be considered after that priority has been met. Tuition tends to be expensive by local standards, ranging between $8,000 and $10,000 annually, but it offers high standards of learning, smaller class sizes, first-rate facilities and a range of extracurricular activities.
"...high standards of learning, smaller class sizes, first-rate facilities..."
The majority of international schools are rigorous in their staff recruitment procedures. Schools will ensure that all staff members are properly qualified (to degree level and with a recognised teaching qualification, such as a PGCE or CIE diploma) and highly experienced in their field of expertise. The teaching body normally consists of a combination of Cuban and expat teachers, often with previous successful international school experience, and knowledge of working with international curricula and the standards they embody.
Depending on the school’s affiliation, they may be accredited by a number of international bodies. English-speaking schools may be accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and the Council of International Schools (CIS). Spanish-speaking schools are often accredited by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport in Madrid (CIDEAD).
A rapidly changing economic climate is bringing new educational needs for the Cuban people, primarily in the areas of business, foreign languages and multimedia. As a result of these trends, Cuba's state education monopoly has begun working more closely with private operators that are filling gaps in the state curriculum. Courses are generally run by church groups and private language schools and are extremely popular, supplementing, but not replacing, state-run education.
"...Cuba's state education monopoly has begun working more closely with private operators..."
There has also been a rise in private tuition, especially at pre-university levels, as tougher entrance exams for higher education are putting extra pressure on families to secure university places. The demand for private tuition in all subjects has encouraged an exodus of good-quality teachers to better-paid jobs in a flourishing private sector.
Cuba is on the brink of major change, and today the biggest challenge faced by Cuba’s education system is to maintain educational investment and reforms without compromising the long-held principles of equal access for all.
All images: Williams Cruz Perdomo and Arley Perera Pérez