Iraqi schools lurch under instability and violence

Friday 04/12/2015
Students and teachers during a lunch break at al Kahhar elementary school in Mahrot el Thor village in Nasiriya.

Baghdad - Through much of the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury, Iraq boasted the best education system in the Middle East. The state provided free education from primary school to post-graduate university studies and awarded scholarships to the world’s top col­leges.
Subsequent wars, however, cou­pled with declining oil revenues, continued instability, sectarianism and militant violence have sent Iraq’s education system to near collapse.
Today, buildings built of mud, though unsafe, cold and lacking the basic foundations of a learning institution, are emerging in rural areas to fill a growing nationwide need for schools.
According to Iraqi education of­ficials, at least 100,000 Iraqi stu­dents are enrolled in some 1,000 “mud schools”, mostly in the southern provinces of Dhi Qar and Samawa.
“With a few drops of rain, the schools turn into muck with ponds all over, which is unsafe for chil­dren since the ceiling can fall on their heads or they could get stuck in mud pools on their way home,” said Ahmed Ali, a teacher in Dhi Qar.
Ali said there are 210 “mud schools” in his area. The schools frequently close for several days, or weeks, at a time in winter depend­ing on the severity of weather.
Hussein Rikaby, principal of the House of the Children Culture in Nasiriya, the capital of Dhi Qar, said that despite the hard conditions, the schools are producing highly gifted children who are at the top of their class nationwide.
“If these students received mod­ern education in new schools with abundant facilities and technical means, they would excel further,” Rikaby said, adding that many “mud school” students are turning into painters, artists and writers.
Statistics show that Iraq led the way in educational access, literacy and gender equality for three con­secutive decades starting in the early 1960s.
However, fighting in 1990-91 over Kuwait and a debilitating embargo forced a sharp decline in the educa­tion system that further dipped in a deteriorating political climate, kin­dled by violence and sectarianism.
Receding oil revenues, partly blamed on official corruption, re­sulted in a shortage of learning re­sources.
In the 1990s, teachers’ salaries dropped to $10 a month, from $300, with the devaluation of the nation­al currency. Many of the country’s 100,000 teachers fled and school facilities were destroyed by bomb­ings targeting infrastructure.
Conditions further worsened with the 2003 US-led invasion, which led to escalating violence and sectarianism and ultimately al­lowed Islamic State (ISIS) militants to seize territory in Iraq.
Education remains hampered by outdated curricula, a shortage of qualified educators and modern facilities, continuing security con­cerns, internal displacement and rampant poverty, according to Bie Kentane of the Brussells Tribunal, who wrote on the matter exten­sively for the United Nations.
Figures by the UN children’s agency UNICEF on primary school enrolment show more boys (93%) are enrolled than girls (87%) but the overall total falls far short of Iraq’s 2015 Millennium Develop­ment Goal target of 98%.
Fewer than half of the 4 million Iraqi children who join elemen­tary and primary education finish school.
With each successive year, fewer children continue their education, according to UNICEF. Just less than half of secondary school-age chil­dren, estimated to total 2 million, go to school.
Iraqi education officials estimate the need for 14,000 new schools for all levels but note that fewer than 3,000 had been built. The delay was blamed on corruption by offi­cials who pocket funds allocated for educational projects.
In Baghdad, classrooms built to accommodate 25-30 children hold up to 120 students.
Save The Children (STC) said the shortage of schools resulted in as many as four shifts being run dai­ly out of the buildings still in use. Overcrowding and shorter days sig­nificantly reduced teacher-student contact time.
UNICEF and STC say schools generally suffer a severe lack of basic resources and teaching aids such as desks, chairs, books and blackboards. Schools are frequent­ly without clean water supplies, sanitation and garbage disposal systems.
The unsanitary conditions put children at greater risk of infections and illness and the poor learning environment negatively affects their outlook, experts say.