UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on students returning to school in Iraq.
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However a quality education amidst the ongoing conflict remains an uphill struggle for many Iraqi families, and more needs to be done to support their efforts.
The new school year follows one of the most difficult in recent memory. Poor exam pass rates at the end of the last school year reflect the damaging toll of displacement and the pervasive insecurity. According to figures released by Iraq’s Ministry of Education, only 40 per cent of final year students in Iraq (excluding the Kurdistan Region) passed their high school exams during the first examination session of 2007, compared to last year’s pass rate of 60 per cent.
Even more concerning, the same figures showed that just 28 per cent of Iraq’s graduation-age population took their exams at all – 152,000 out of approximately 642,000 children aged 17 -- although a supplementary exam session currently underway should increase these figures.
Roger Wright, UNICEF Representative for Iraq, stressed that, despite these figures, each and every completed test must be viewed as a success for Iraqi children – many of whom braved unacceptable risks to reach exam centres.
“Iraq’s schools are in urgent need of support, both in terms of access to schooling and the quality of learning children receive” Wright said. “Well-educated children represent a chance to lift Iraq into a future of security and hope.”
A 2006 survey by the Government of Iraq, supported by UNICEF, showed that in the previous year, even before the intensification of violence and displacement, one in six Iraqi children did not attend primary school. Reports from communities suggest attendance has since declined in many areas, due to increased insecurity, security clampdowns, and the threat of direct attacks on schools and teachers.
Displacement has placed an additional substantial burden on Iraq’s school system. More than 220,000 school-aged children have had to flee their homes since early 2006. Many were initially unable to attend schools in their new areas for lack of clear policies on mid-year re-enrolment and may have missed months of schooling.
Throughout the summer, UNICEF has been supporting Iraq’s Ministry of Education to enhance children’s education prospects for this coming year. Re-enrolment procedures for displaced children are now clearer, and teachers have been re-assigned to ease the burden on overcrowded schools. UNICEF and its partners are helping to restore damaged school infrastructure, and add extra classrooms and water/sanitation facilities; teachers are also being trained to provide psycho-social care for the many children affected by anxiety and loss.
For the first time in Iraq, UNICEF is promoting, together with local communities, a home learning curriculum for children forced to stay at home because of displacement or insecurity; and 20,000 out-of-school children are now enrolled in a special Accelerated Learning Programme to help them finish their education.
Wright praised the incredible commitment of Iraq’s families to educate their children and called on all parties to do everything possible to ensure every child can attend classes – particularly girls who are especially at risk of having to drop out. He also called for more national and international investment in education initiatives to reach all children. UNICEF is currently relying largely on internal resources to deliver emergency education support.
He also stressed that stronger local security measures, while essential to rebuild the confidence of Iraq’s parents and teachers, should never make it harder for children to reach schools.
“No Iraqi child should have to sit frustrated at home when they are clearly hungry to learn and build a better future,” Wright said. “There is no better investment in Iraq at this time than securing its children’s right to a quality education.”
UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.