Cuba foots bill to teach Kiwis literacy

By Ainsley Thomson

By AINSLEY THOMSON and HELEN TUNNAH

Cuba is sending education advisers to New Zealand to improve literacy rates.

The Cuban advisers are working at the Te Awamutu-based Te Wananga o Aotearoa (the University of New Zealand) - the country's largest tertiary institution - where they are helping develop a literacy programme called Greenlight.

Cuba pays the advisers' wages, and Te Wananga picks up the bill for their living costs.

The video-based programme uses Cuban and Maori teaching practices.

A pamphlet describes the Cuban teaching process as moving from "the idea to the word, from the word to the phoneme, from the phoneme to the new word, from the new words to new ideas and those new ideas transform student's thoughts, words and actions."

Te Wananga chief executive Rongo Wetere said the first of the five advisers arrived last year. He said the three advisers now living in Te Awamutu were all professors. Only one could speak English.

Mr Wetere discovered the Cuban teaching method while visiting the country for a conference.

He was impressed with the country's high literacy rate and met the Cuban Minister of Education to discuss the programme, which Cuba has helped establish in a number of South American countries.

Cuba was this year recognised by the United Nations for its achievements in eradicating illiteracy.

But US academics, a long-time foe of Cuba, have debated whether Castro's claims on literacy rates are accurate or have been exaggerated.

This year Te Wananga has run a pilot Greenlight programme that has 500 students enrolled in it.

The programme, which students follow from home, is free.

Mr Wetere said if it proved successful, Te Wananga hopes to get Government money so it can be extended to any of the institution's 35,000 students who may have literacy problems.

A spokesman for Tertiary Education Minister Steve Maharey said Te Wananga was self-governing, but was understood to be putting together a literacy project application for next year.

The Qualifications Authority must approve the quality of any course before it is granted money. However, Mr Maharey's spokesman said Cuba did have an international reputation for improving literacy.

Progressive MP Matt Robson said Te Wananga o Aotearoa had been sensible in choosing an award-winning literacy programme to help Maori achievement.

Act MP Rodney Hide yesterday criticised the Cuban link, saying New Zealand had nothing to learn from that country which was a "basket case".

According to Unesco, Cuba recorded 10 per cent of its population illiterate in 1970, and just 3.3 per cent in 2000.

The Herald understands no comprehensive information on literacy rates here is available. However, an International Adult Literacy Study, comparing literacy rates in New Zealand with other nations, found Maori men and women were less literate than non-Maori.

How Cuba rates

* Adult literacy rate (15 years and over): 96 per cent

* New Zealand's adult literacy rate (15 years and over): 99 per cent

* A 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey (aged 16 to 65) found one in five New Zealanders had very poor literacy skills.

* In an OECD survey of 32 developed countries in 2000, New Zealand 15-year-olds rated third for reading and maths skills and sixth for science.

* A literacy campaign set up by Cuban President Fidel Castro in 1960 raised the adult literacy level from 76 per cent to 96 per cent in one year.

* A 2001 United Nations agency-administered study of Latin American third and fourth graders put Cuba at the top or near it for maths and literature skills.

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