Iraqi schools lurch under instability and violence
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.