When I told people I was embarking on a trip of solidarity to Cuba I was given a quizzical look. Questions were asked as to whether I would be safe? The media had indicated that Cuba could be linked to terrorism and visitors were advised to be cautious. Cuba’s reputation is linked with cigars, rum and communism, however nowhere has there been any documented terrorist activity or links.

The National Education Union gave me the opportunity to see for myself.

In the weeks that led up to my visit I began to research. I wanted to learn all that I could about a country that has been under the United States’ blockade for more than five decades. It was through this research that I began to discover the wonder that is Cuba.

Work began in my school where my own education about Cuba, led to my students education of Cuba. The students began stock piling supplies to take over to the schools I would visit. We were all in awe of Cuba!

On 21 October, 24 National Education Union members arrived in Havana. We were greeted with the warmth of the Caribbean and the rain October always brings. We were exhausted from the journey but smiling from ear to ear, the array of 1950’s classic cars lined up outside the terminal were a joyous welcome!

Our itinerary enabled us to visit a number of schools and organisations, and it was here that Cuba came to life. Yes, the Mojitos were delicious, the sunshine wonderful, but nothing could have ever prepared me for the emotions I would experience in a Cuban school.

Education in Cuba is nothing short of amazing. The educational ethos of the Cuban government stems back to 1961 when Fidel Castro declared the ‘Literacy Campaign’. On 1 January, literacy brigades were sent across the country to ensure that every Cuban could read and write. “‘You will teach, you will learn.”, said Castro, knowing that education was the best weapon for the future of all Cubans and to defend the nascent Cuban Revolution. Almost 57 years on and this is evident in every school. Every student wearing the same uniform, eating a nutritious meal and receiving an education the world should be envious of. Social status and demographics do not apply when it comes to the education of Cuba’s future generations.

Every school we visited took pride in showing us the Cuban way of education, their talents in abundance. The assemblies we were presented with, clearly and carefully planned, were breath taking. It was during these visits that I observed the clear effects that the blockade has on every school. Resources are scarce, walls are bare and facilities extremely basic. There are no laptops or high tech computer suites. Sports equipment is basic and cheaply made, instruments are old with replacement parts being sourced from China. These pieces of equipment are exceptionally expensive and often of poor quality. Yet despite this, despite importation restrictions, despite the long ongoing campaigns to be released from a 56 year blockade, Cuban schools get it right, every time.

There were many occasions where I was moved to tears by the passion and talent of the students before me. Not because they had so little but because they had so much. The care, nurture and love they receive from teachers clearly demonstrated that, combined with a first class education; material items, wall displays, interactive whiteboards etc. are not needed to inspire a child who is excited to learn. The Cuban recipe for education, for each individual student, demonstrated this in abundance. To see a music teacher lovingly wrap her arms around a student that had just performed for us, tell him how wonderful he was, how proud she was, left me questioning and envious, if not a little sad. Our society has taken that physical interaction away from education facilities. It is not deemed appropriate to hug a student.

The Cubans however, feel differently. Whilst a child is in their care, they are the parents, they are teachers. It is their job to show love, affection and help shape the future adult. This makes perfect sense doesn’t it? Students are in our care for the largest part of their educational life, surely we are responsible for making sure that child feels cared for and nurtured. If my child was sad or in need of a hug, I would hope the teacher would put aside our social expectations and hug him/her!

A question was raised about mental health and wellbeing in Cuban schools. Surely with the expectations of students so high, this would lead to a rise in stress levels and associated mental health issues? Students have to pass rigorous tests in order to proceed through the educational system. Their education is closely monitored by their place of education and monthly parent meetings are compulsory. It stands to reason mental health and student health may be compromised, doesn’t it? Here in England we have seen Childline enquiries increase by 35% since 2016 purely for pressures educationally related.

The teacher looked confused by this question. She responded by asking why would the students have mental health related problems caused by educational pressures? Students are taught that they can only do their best. The students and their families receive support and assistance throughout their educational life. The students are taught that education is the only way they can fight the blockade and support their communities as an adult. Students are genuinely excited to learn.

We are one of the richest and most developed countries in the world and yet our students are hiding behind the shadows of tests and the worry of poor scores. We teach them to do their best, be the best that they can be yet they are still filled with fear.

The Cuban government spends 12.8% of its GDP on education, the UK spends 4.4%…

My visit left me questioning; if the Cubans can be so successful with so little, what is stopping us from implementing a little Cuban flavour over here? Even if we do just offer ‘that’ child, the child that you know needs it most, a hug.