When seven year old children start to participate in the running of their school; from organising the morning breakfast, to helping the teachers out with activities, to organising excursions, and attending the weekly meeting of the school’s organising collective, you know that something important is happening, and that to some extent we must be on the path to creating a new kind of human being, new kinds of relations, and therefore a new kind of society.
The children I’m talking about are part of the Pueblo Nuevo Alternative School, in Merida city. However so far such a vision for education is limited to a number of “model” schools and the majority of Venezuelan children continue to be educated in the conventional way. While education here is now accessible to almost everyone, illiteracy has been eradicated, teachers’ working conditions and wages are much better, and education is more linked to the world it exists in, mostly through community service and the communal councils, structural changes in terms of teaching methods and democratic organising of schools and education have been very limited.
Building a new education system is an important prong to building a new economic and political system, because the education system is where we form many of our values, where we learn how to relate to people, where we learn our identity and history, and how to participate in society. Hence we need an alternative to the conventional education systems that train us to be workers more than anything else, to be competitive, to operate under almost army-like discipline, to focus only on individual results not collective outcomes, and to not really understand our history, or the more emotional aspects of life.
Because of the social importance of education and because of global attempts to privatise it and turn students into nothing more than “human capital”, as Eduardo Galeano termed it, the fight for decent teaching conditions or school infrastructure can’t be separate from broader justice struggles and social change. The effort to change Venezuela’s education system is intricately connected to its larger political project.
Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution is just getting off the ground in many senses, because capitalism is still strong here. Hence within each battle to change society, old values rival new ones, old vices suffocate new aims, and money still has power and persuasion.
These two interviews about Venezuela’s education system are windows to the underlying battles that the revolution as a whole is facing; its demons, dreams, obstacles, and possibilities. The first interview is with Placido Reinoza, president of the Parents’ Association of a Bolivarian primary school, while the second is with Jeaneth Lopez, a teacher in a government supported, alternative, and grassroots run school.
Interview 1: Placido Reinoza: Bolivarian Primary School Rivas Davila
I first met Reinoza when he came to the swearing-in of the spokespeople of our communal council and gave quite a long and fiery speech about the Bolivarian Revolution and the importance of participation and organisation in solving the problems of our community, our school, and in Venezuela in general.
All of his children have studied at the Rivas Davila school, the oldest are now working and the youngest have a few years to go there before they move on to high school. Hence, his commitment to education dates back well before the Chavez government. He is now the elected president of the Parents’ and Representatives Association of Rivas Davila, and although he lives within the boundaries of a neighbouring communal council, the school itself is within the area of our communal council, and he regularly comes to our meetings to inform us of issues relating to the school and to encourage our participation and assistance.
A Bolivarian school is so called because it’s a government project and because it has two shifts of classes. Reinoza explained that forty years ago public schools in Venezuela also had double shifts, but with population growth there wasn’t enough space or infrastructure for so many children, so the governments created two shifts, in which one set of students studied early in the morning, and another set studied in the afternoon. In Bolivarian schools, students study in both shifts and therefore should receive lunch and snacks as part of the program. Before the Chavez government, only two states in Venezuela had such a system.
One of the main problems at Rivas Davila has been the lack of the free lunch, for over a year, with the result being that many students haven’t been staying for the second shift of class because they went home to eat. This interview was conducted a few weeks ago, and in that time the communal council has, through persistence with talking to food providers and meeting with the school’s directive, won the battle to get the PAE program- the free lunches- happening again at Rivas Davila.
What would you say are the main obstacles and achievements in public education under the current government?
Obstacles, well the fact that a lot of programs (such as to prevent drug addiction or early pregnancy) don’t arrive. It’s unjustifiable that the lunch, which holds the day together in a way, doesn’t arrive and that 70% of schools in Merida don’t receive this service when they should. The sad thing is that the people in positions [of authority]; the governors, ministers, legislators, they don’t feel this, and they don’t denounce it. In fact, just the other day during parliament question time, the [education] minister said, assured the president, that the PAE is going well and that four million students receive it, and that’s a lie.
There’s the problem of amiguismo [“friend-ism”, or clientalism] and corruption. There are a lot of paid teachers, but they don’t do their job and there’s no auditing of that. A teacher might get the job because they are the brother of someone... people get jobs because they have friends in high places, not because they are qualified.
Just recently, in the pre-school just two blocks from here, this guy was all dressed up in a suit and he walked into the preschool and said he was there to work as a doorman, and they told him they already had one, and he said if they didn’t let him work he’d ring his mother-in-law who has a high position in the education ministry. And now you can see, he’s working there.
If the Parents’ Association and the Communal Councils were really participating, they could oversee problems like this.
Further, all this is quite damaging because it causes de-motivation. The teachers who work hard see teachers who don’t work hard, but receive the same benefits. Then, there are the cases of the teachers who are paid like all the others but somehow have expensive cars, and these teachers are in the directive or the administration, and it’s clear they are robbing from somewhere.
In terms of achievements, ah it’s sad to think about achievements. They are there, I think, but they are very specific. Often, they are the result of the efforts of individuals. For example, in the Paramo [high up in the Andean mountains of Merida] the Bolivarian schools work much better because there is a directive or a group of people who are committed to them.
I want to show you something, look at this, [Reinoza shows me photos on his computer] it’s a school just near here, they have a project where the children plant medicinal plants, and you can see the adults helping out. That’s all the result of the passion of one teacher who has taken the initiative to do this, with the collaboration from the parents. This isn’t the ministry, there’s no support from there. But this example, it’s just an isolated thing.
How has the school’s relationship with the community changed?
Not a lot has changed, I think that there is still some distance between the parents, the children’s representatives, and the school. There isn’t a sense of belonging, and in my way of understanding it this is due to a range of reasons. The government doesn’t promote or encourage enough love of the education institution by the parents.
Also, there’s resolution 7.51 from the 1986 law, which governs the educational community. But the directors of most schools completely ignore it. So it’s true that parents elect the directive [of the school] every year, but these directives often don’t comply with the minimum requirements of education and don’t implement the law. It means that there isn’t the sort of integration that there should be, that the parents aren’t close to the school, aren’t interested, and there isn’t that co-responsibility.
Of course, I’m just talking about public schools. In private schools it’s a different situation. In private schools the parents are allowed to contribute financially, whereas in public schools it’s illegal. [The government] argues that there shouldn’t be any conditions for a child to be able to study, and that money means inequality, but what it means in practice is that the parent is isolated from the school and less interested.
We always want the government to do things for us. The school has problems, and some of them are small, they are things that the parents and community could fix themselves, but we’re prohibited. In the private schools though, the parents feel obliged to attend the mass assemblies, and the private schools are full, there are queues starting the day before to register children there.
Participation of teachers, parents, and community in decision making, and the use of the school for community participation [as stipulated in the new Education Law passed in 2009] depends on the [political] colour of the directive. That is, if the directive identifies with the [revolutionary] process, it will comply with the law, but if the directive is against the government, it will avoid this responsibility.
Also, there’s a kind of vacuum between the schools and the education ministry. The ministry doesn’t have the mechanisms to supervise the school’s progress, the teachers, or the sort of education the students are receiving. The ministry is a bit like a group of messengers, but they never come into the classroom, they don’t see what’s happening, what’s needed, or what the weaknesses are. So a lot of what is written in the new law stays on paper.
I participated in a lot of seminars in preparation for the new education law, and I thought it was great; there are a lot of important things, a lot of improvements. I loved that the community, not just the Parents’ Association has the right to participate in the planning of the school.
However I think when the law was passed it was highly politicised... it was seen as a political question, and the opposition also demonised it and made out like schools would be the owners of the children, which isn’t in the law. A lot of the private schools, in association with the Catholic Church, spread fear and panic. Still, I felt that the passing of the law was more political event than something well thought out and analysed.
How about classroom methodology, has that changed at all?
I don’t think so. The government has given a lot of resources to education, and never before has a government given so much financial support to education as this one, but that doesn’t mean that education has changed.
The government is very proud that it has eradicated illiteracy, but if you teach me to sign my name and write the vowels, and I can do it, I’m not illiterate. But that’s not enough.
Are the working conditions and salaries of the teachers any different?
Yes, this is something that has definitely changed, workers rights are much better, and you can see that in the twelve years of the Chavez government there have been very few strikes, there has been a lot of stability. But that means there is some confusion, as people believe that because of this, education itself has improved, but life in the classroom is the same.
Basically, all this money has just created bureaucracy; the students don’t see it.
The government talks a lot about power for the people and gives a lot of importance to the communal councils and communes. I think it’s time that they reformed the functioning of the education ministry. It’s time for the resources for the schools to be managed by the parents’ association and the communal councils because at the moment the problems of the school aren’t being solved. We’re waiting a long time for resources. You can see that here, we’ve had that damaged ceiling for two years so that classroom isn’t being used. The kitchen isn’t sufficiently equipped. All this affects the quality of education. And because we aren’t receiving the food for lunch, the children are only in school in the morning, for four hours instead of eight.
What’s your vision of socialist education, and how do you think we could get there?
I think, I imagine, rather than having private and public schools, there’d just be one type, and the children of the governor or the legislator or the rich people would go to the same school as the worker. They’d all share the same classroom. That way, they [the governors etc] would know the weaknesses of the school and could help solve them.
All the benefits to the schools, the resources, would be distributed equally, and this thousand head monster that they call the ministry of education would be dismantled and resources would arrive directly to the schools to be managed by the communities, and with community auditing.
Children wouldn’t have to wait three years for problems to be solved. In the private school over there [he points] they have put a roof over the court and improved the classrooms, but we’re still waiting. Its inequality and elitism and it shouldn’t be like that.
To get there, were need to raise awareness about many things, about the issues, and about the power of the collective, and there needs to be political will. I can have ideas, but if the legislators don’t promote them... also, the laws should be updated.
Interview 2: Jeaneth Lopez: Pueblo Nuevo Alternative School
It’s almost the end of class, the older students are in the computer room, while the younger ones are with Lopez and another teacher, sitting around the table doing maths worksheets which Lopez made individually for each of them, depending on their levels and needs. As they work, they sing along to Victor Jara. One child, “A”, seven, has had trouble learning to read. His parents sell drugs and he knows more about their production than he does about maths or the alphabet. Today, he has just been taken to the dentist, his mouth hurts, and rather than being his usual cheeky and energetic self, he is floppy. He needs a hug, and he walks up to me and flops into my arms and stays there for several minutes.
As midday arrives, the students and teachers gather around to plan breakfast for the next day- what they’ll eat and who will bring what.
Lopez is one of the original founders of the school. She started out doing community service in Pueblo Nuevo, where she lives, and through that, creating a community library, which is now part of the school. She was working with the neighbourhood children and helping them with their homework, when they realised the children often didn’t have any material or anyone to help them as their parents couldn’t pay much attention to them. From there, the alternative school was formed.
It is now run by a collective called Cayapa, which consists of revolutionaries living both in and outside of the community, most of them teachers at the school, some working in the computer room, giving dance classes in the school in the afternoon, or working in the Barrio Adentro surgery.
What are the main aims of the alternative school?
The main aim of the school is to prepare the children so they can organise themselves socially. Beyond training them academically, they are trained in the social and political aspects of life, so that they understand that organised communities are the ones that can achieve change and transformation in society.
How does the school work, how is it different to conventional public schools?
The school is a social-educational project that attends to children enrolled in it, as well as those who aren’t. It’s different to traditional schools because we work in a freer and more flexible way. The curriculum is adapted to the needs of the children [who in this barrio, for social and economic reasons, often haven’t yet learnt to read, or often have psychological problems or learning difficulties]. We use a lot of games in our methodology- we believe learning should be fun, and that way the children learn more.
There’s no monotony, or repetition, or copying off blackboards. Rather, the children learn through the games and their daily experiences, and they learn what they need to develop themselves as people, which is the most important.
We try to work in a more integral way, attending their needs. Like the breakfast for example, there are children who can’t have breakfast in the house, so we prepare that collectively to cover that need and to also work together better.
Education is a composite thing- it’s not just the classroom, its cultural activities like dancing, singing, drawing, martial arts...and health as well. We make sure the children have their vaccinations and we take them to the optometrist, the dentist and the doctor.
We take the children and their needs and what they are interested in into account. But in a traditional school, they give you a package of learning and they say ‘here is what you have to do’.
The most important thing is to attend to the kids, so we work hard, but we’re not stressed. The teachers in the other schools have to comply with all the guidelines and they lose their focus on what is more important, and they become negative, stressed, and pessimistic.
Another thing is the kids are in contact with reality, with concrete things. We do a lot of work outside the class room, so they are observing and expressing what they feel and think, and there’s a lot more freedom in this area. We promote creativity, we want the kids to learn to express themselves rather than just repeat what the teacher says or writes.
What would you say are the main achievements of the alternative school?
Until now we have constructed a group of children who interact with each other in a different way. Before, there was a lot of violence, both physical and verbal. There is still a bit now, but it’s a lot less. The kids have learnt to have more healthy relations, to share and respect, and to accept differences.
Academically, there is also some progress. Before there were kids who didn’t know how to read and now they can. They have learnt the basics of mathematics, to use the computers [which the government has provided the school with] and other things.
We’ve also achieved some integration between the school and the parents. Not all the parents, but some are more involved and more devoted to their children. They come around the school, something that didn’t happen before. Before they left their children in the street and didn’t look after them, now though they are more interested.
What is the school’s relationship with the community, and how are school decisions made?
We try to coordinate the work of the school with the community through presentations and cultural acts. We show the parents and community what the kids have learnt, what songs and dances and also they write poems and stories and we stick them up in the street.
We have also carried out health campaigns, like the one about dengue or the day of non-smoking, the teachers and students- we went out in the street and knocked on doors and talked to people about these things.
The teachers in CAYAPA were also involved in setting up the community council, and those of us who live here in the community, we were elected as spokespeople. One student was also elected.
Slowly we’re also integrating some of the parents into our activities- a few of them will give workshops to the kids about the things they specialise in, and the parents have been involved in cleaning up and renovating the school, organising cake stalls [to raise money for the school] and things like that.
Decisions are made by the collective- the teachers meet every Saturday, and people who collaborate with the school also contribute their ideas, this way the work of the school is carried out in the best way. We also listen to the opinions of the students, to their motivations and interests, and every Monday we plan the activities of the week with them. They also have their own space to organise extracurricular activities and excursions, and they can choose where their want to work, if they want to participate in the lesson, and they can make their own proposals.
What has been the role of the government and the Bolivarian revolution in the school?
It has been very positive, because it has given us an opportunity that in other places or under other systems we wouldn’t have. They have given as a “north” [something to aim for], to continue promoting and working towards the values of a society of coexistence, of living well together.
The education ministry pays the wages of some of the teachers, but to be honest they haven’t come here much to see how we’re working. There is one teacher [in the ministry] who is following the project and she comes here and meets with us. She is the one who suggested we form the school and she proposed the project to the ministry and they opened this school. This one along with others... there’s about 150 alternative schools, here in Merida there’s a puppetry school, another alternative school in Los Curos...there’s about 5 or 10 in total in this city. A few function within the buildings of the normal schools but are just a bit different, but have a special focus such as ecology, or tourism.
In terms of resources, the food for breakfast, the craft and educational materials, we’ve resolved all that ourselves.
Have you faced any obstacles?
At the start we faced some obstacles with the parents, because they didn’t think the school was legal and that their kids would graduate and it would be recognised, they saw the school more as support. So they were concerned at the start, but later they realised that we were registered, and there was more trust and they sent their kids. Then when they realised their kids were working and were advancing, it was better.
We’ve had other challenges, like at the start we were working with one teacher who had very traditional ideas about education, and she didn’t agree with us and criticised us publically. She didn’t understand the changes and she left the school and started spreading rumours about us, saying the kids just play and don’t learn, and that damaged the project a little. But, with the real work that we have done here we’ve confronted that situation and gotten past it.
We understand that sometimes the project is difficult but we also understand that it’s a process and know we’re doing what we have to do and that we’re learning as we go.
Would the alternative school survive without the Bolivarian Revolution?
No, I don’t think so, because I think only a system like the one that we’re in now, that’s in tune with the objectives and principles of what we’re trying to do- a society which encourages the same values of participation, inclusion, coexistence, as we are. I don’t think it would be possible to develop this project without the government; the interests would be opposed to each other under a totally capitalist country.
What do you think socialist education is, and how can we create it across the country?
It’s liberating education, which opens up spaces so people can think for themselves, and develops people as individuals, but also as part of a society. It provides a way for the people to choose their own path.
To create such an education system, we need to make this experience [of the alternative school] known, and reinforce the work we’re doing, and go about spreading these ideas so that people know about other realities. If they are aware of them, they can understand that yes you can change and transform society, and liberating education helps make that possible.