Responding to Iraq’s learning crisis

Three years after Mosul was retaken from the so-called Islamic State, parts of west Mosul still resemble a warzone with entire neighborhoods laid waste. Buildings remain collapsed into each other like a deck of cards. They create a dangerous mashup of bricks and steel that loom over children and families fighting to resume their lives as best they can despite daily reminders of the violence that took place.

Amidst the rubble and destruction, Al-Hafsa primary school in the historical Old City of Mosul stands like an oasis. UNICEF supported the school’s rehabilitation and provided learning and teaching materials to create a safe environment  conducive to learning  But even for this beacon, challenges remain.

A girl peers through the door from inside a classroom.
© UNICEF/2019/AnmarShahed, 7, stands in front of the prefab classrooms prepared by UNICEF for the Hafsa School in western Mosul.

“The path to school is very difficult, particularly when it rains, and the roads are bad,” said Hanaa Hamid, whose children attend the school. “Our neighborhood is also poor, there are no jobs here. Families are struggling to buy essentials; this impacts our children’s learning, even if education is free.”

The obstacles students face in Al Hafsa are emblematic of the wider learning crisis in Iraq, says Hamida Lasseko, UNICEF’s Representative in Iraq.

“Conflict and poverty have affected every aspect of Iraqi society and contributed to growing inequality for children. Education is one of the sectors where there’s been a sharp deterioration in quality and access for the most vulnerable children,” she explained.

The race is on for Iraq to deliver inclusive and equitable quality education for all of its children

A 2018 government-supported survey revealed just over half of children from the poorest background complete primary education and the gap widens with only 24 percent completing upper secondary education.

The five regions with the lowest school enrollment and attendance rates are concentrated in Iraq’s southern areas, which remain its poorest, and in Anbar and Ninawa – the two governorates that bore the brunt of the last few years’ violence.

A lady in a hijab stands at the gate of a building with a painted sign atop.
© UNICEF/2019/AnmarHanaa, principal of Al Hafsah School, stands in front of the school door.

Education and conflict-related trauma

For children recovering from conflict-related trauma, resuming school is an essential element to reintroduce a sense of normalcy and safety. However, the shortage of teachers, many of whom remain displaced, as well as insufficient school buildings in former conflict areas severely hamper access to quality education. To accommodate, schools in many parts of Iraq operate in multiple shifts.

In Al-Hafsa, children have about three hours of time with teachers before vacating to make room for others. This not only reduces learning time, it also leaves few or no opportunities for any extra-curricular activities, including psychosocial support which is critical to helping children deal with trauma.

Shortage of schools also results in overcrowded classrooms, with as many as 60 students per class.

A group of young girls in school uniform walking amidst rubble
© UNICEF/2019/AnmarA group of female students, walking through the ruins, are going to school in western Mosul.

“It’s impossible to teach or learn in a classroom with 60 students,” said Samar Thanon, the headteacher. “The pre-fabricated classrooms provided by UNICEF have made a real difference to both teachers and students,” she added.

With only ten years  left to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, the race is on for Iraq to deliver inclusive and equitable quality education for all of its children. According to Hamida Lasseko, the resources are there and they must be allocated to prioritize the needs of children and young people.


Laila Ali is a Communication Specialist with UNICEF in Iraq.


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