With Iraqi classrooms having been empty for nearly a month now due to the current conflict, aid agencies and the United Nations are preparing for the massive job of reconstructing the country's education system.
Carel de Rooy, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative in Iraq, told IRIN from the Jordanian capital, Amman, on Tuesday that Iraq's school system had been in collapse for more than a decade.
One-quarter of children did not attend school, the country was short of 5,000 primary schools, and 8,000 existing ones were in desperate need of repair, most children were in school for only two to three hours a day instead of six, and teachers were only paid between US $6 and $8 a day.
"Conclusion is, they don't learn much. So the quality of education is very poor," de Rooy said. But despite the conditions of classrooms, many of which did not have power, toilets or glass in the windows, de Rooy said the most pressing need was to get children back into a learning environment.
At present, all schools are reportedly closed, with nobody clear as to when the security situation may allow pupils to return. What was needed was school materials so that children could get back to class. "Even not necessarily a classroom - it could be tents even," de Rooy said.
In a population of about 25 million, there were 5.7 million children at primary schools - not counting the 25 percent of school-aged children who had never enrolled or had dropped out. De Rooy said the Iraqi curriculum had not been revised in 20 years, and was very "top down" in its approach, with little scope for child participation, and contained elements of political teaching from the current regime.
But he warned against replacing one "indoctrination framework" by another, no matter how good or bad it was. Instead, it had to be left to Iraqis to decide what was best for their children and what should be in the curriculum. Preparing a new curriculum could take anywhere up to two years, he warned.
Iraq's education system had been badly hit by sanctions, as well as the fact that the UN Oil-for-Food Programme did not allow for much cash to repair or construct schools in the southern and central regions of the country. "And that has probably hurt the education sector more than any other sector," de Rooy said. "But in Iraq, even if the education system is in collapse and has been in crisis for some time now, there is still a semblance of a system."
Beyond getting children back to school and providing materials, UNICEF would focus on catch-up programmes for those who had missed out on education; job training for those not in school; physical reconstruction of classes; teacher training; mine awareness; and helping children who had been traumatised by what they had seen and experienced.
UNICEF had worked closely with the authorities in the three northern Kurdish-controlled regions under the Oil-for-Food Programme, but de Rooy said this would not necessarily be a model for the rest of the country. He said the northern programme had concentrated too much on formal education rather than vocational training for those who were reaching adulthood and had no education.
He estimated that 50 percent of adolescents in Iraq's north were illiterate. For UNICEF, the reconstruction of Iraq's education system would be a top priority. "It's absolutely crucial. No question."
Meanwhile, Save the Children's spokeswoman in Kuwait, Nicole Amoroso, told IRIN from Kuwait City that education in Iraq had been in disarray before the war, and could only be worse now. While Save the Children was currently concentrating on emergency efforts such as supplying food, water and medicines, education was definitely a priority for it. "Education allows children to come together, it gives them a routine, and it allows children to come together in a place that can help heal [them], as well, from the trauma of war," she said.
Save the Children wanted to build on the teaching resources that were already in place, as well as providing supplies for schools. It would be returning to Iraq on Thursday to carry out further assessments of what the needs were in southern Iraq.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions