Global Policy Forum

Violence Batters Baghdad Schools

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
August 30, 2007

Kidnappings of students, murders of teachers and chaotic classrooms leave education in the capital close to collapse.

Sectarian violence is crippling the capital's educational system, according to teachers, administrators and parents. As armed groups use violence to upset daily life in many areas of Baghdad, the absence of law and order not only undermines government authority but also leave schools extremely vulnerable. Kidnappings of middle-class and wealthy students are common, and many teachers have been killed. Families escort their children to school and sometimes stay with them until the end of the day so they can take them home safely.

The chaos caused by violent attacks and kidnappings is felt at nearly every level, with students misbehaving and missing class, and teachers refusing to come to work. Approximately 600 teachers were murdered across Iraq in the 2006-2007 academic year, according to the ministry of education. "Education in Baghdad's schools is a joke," said 35-year-old Ali Abdul-Hussein, who has moved to a different Baghdad neighbourhood and pulled his two children out of school because of the violence. "The ministry [of education] can't provide education and protection for our children."

The day-to-day operation of schools is disrupted by the number of displaced students moving in and out of educational institutions. The education departments in both al-Karkh in west Baghdad and al-Rasafa in the east are packed with parents appealing to bureaucrats to move their children to safer areas of the city or postpone their studies for another year. Meanwhile, mortars and roadside bomb attacks in the capital's war-wracked neighbourhoods — from the mainly Sunni Arab Adhamiyya quarter and the mixed district of Dora to the formerly middle-class areas of al-Khadra and Hei al-Amil — have forced schools to shut down for months at a time. "Terrorists, extremist Islamists and former regime elements [Baathist insurgents from Saddam Hussein's rule] are targeting educational institutions in Baghdad and Iraq," said Falah al-Qureishi, a spokesman for the ministry. "They are trying to disrupt education and instil fear in students and teachers so that they will no longer go to school."

Teachers complain they cannot finish their lessons or focus on teaching. They say that the weakness of the educational system could have negative long-term consequences for Iraqi students and the country in general. Students are unable to complete the full curriculum because of interruptions and missed days, and struggle to concentrate on their work because they are more worried about their immediate safety than their academic prospects. "We frequently need to let students out early when an emergency occurs, even if it's after only one or two classes," said Mallak Salim, a 27-year-old teacher at al-Shahba primary school in southern Baghdad. "All of these problems are confusing for students. They're worried." The education ministry has not been able to do much to protect students and teaching staff. Despite its decision to assign interior ministry security staff to some schools, many say that the academic year was a failure in Baghdad.

There are more than 21,000 schools in Baghdad. UNICEF Special Representative for Iraq Roger Wright has noted that Iraq once had one of the best educational systems in the Middle East, but that many were now in a state of disrepair and lacked water and sanitation facilities following years of war and sanctions under former leader Saddam Hussein. UNICEF made the reconstruction of Iraq's crumbling schools one of its main goals following Saddam's overthrow, but the agency and other aid organisations have increasingly had to focus their efforts on an emergency response to the country's growing displaced and refugee populations. In a report released in April, UNICEF said that education was "gravely affected" by the conflict and that it was concerned that displaced children were unable to attend classes. Some schools were forced to hold two or three shifts to accommodate displaced students, noted the agency. It estimated that 800,000 children — 63 per cent of them girls — did not attend school in 2005-2006.

Rather than risk travelling to school, some children are instead studying from home under the guidance of parents and tutors. Hind Abdulla, a 45-year-old Sunni mother, said her daughter studied with a tutor last year because she was in her final year of school and needed regular tuition to achieve the high marks needed to enter university. "The problem I had was finding a teacher from our own religious sect," she said. "Shia teachers refuse to teach Sunni students, and vice versa. "This is a serious problem for many families of students, not to mention the [problem of] where the teachers live. If the area is too dangerous, we can't get there." Shamil Abdullah, headmaster of al-Quds Secondary School in Hei al-Jamia, likened his school to a time-bomb that could explode at any time, and has closed it several times. Teachers refuse to attend classes because there have been several attacks which damaged buildings.

Sectarian graffiti by pupils coat the walls, with insults directed variously against Sunni, Shia and Kurds. The teaching staff, he said, is also divided. "There are two rooms in my school for the teachers, one for Sunni and the other for Shia," he said. "They seldom meet without squabbling over the political situation in Iraq, so I decided to separate them to ease the tension." Abdullah said he had received several threats but was uncertain whether they were from the insurgents or from the pupils themselves. The schoolchildren are misbehaving because of the violence, and some completely disregard rules and figures of authority, neither of which now carry much weight inside or outside schools in Baghdad. "There are wild kids at my school who pay more attention to sex and social taboos than to education," said Jasim Saeed, a 19-year-old high school student. Saeed said he and his friends have no qualms about thumbing their noses at school staff. They have used empty classrooms to watch pornographic films or smoke. Once they were caught by a headmaster, who could only tell them off them because he feared they or their families would retaliate. Teachers themselves complain that they do not feel they can discipline students because their families might come after them.

Ibtisam al-Salman, an education supervisor in Baghdad's al-Karkh district, noted that some schools in more stable Baghdad neighbourhoods such as the wealthy, mainly Sunni Mansour neighbourhood and the impoverished Shia area of Sadr City, have managed to stay open, with students regularly attending class.

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