Iraq's burgeoning private schools prioritise profit at expense of education for all

Iraq: Private schools normalised as state sector stagnates
7 min read
Iraq's state-funded education system used to be known as the best in the region, but 19 years after the US-led invasion, that legacy is in tatters. Now, the country is seeing the rise of private schooling, though many are struggling to afford it.

The private school sector in Iraq is growing rapidly, despite the fact that many families struggle to afford the fees. This is because private schools are increasingly viewed as necessary in light of the huge decline in the quality of the education on offer at Iraq's state schools.

These suffer from many problems – including a lack of qualified teachers, dilapidated school buildings, and sometimes even the abusive treatment of pupils. In addition to these issues, many parents feel forced to pay for additional private lessons, in any case, to ensure their children are not missing out on parts of the curriculum.   

For these reasons, families are being forced to resort to paying for private education for their children. This phenomenon has been growing over the last ten years, which explains the multiple advertisements for private schools plastered all over the streets and intersections of Baghdad.

"The private school sector in Iraq is growing rapidly, despite the fact that many families struggle to afford the fees. This is because private schools are increasingly viewed as necessary in light of the huge decline in the quality of the education on offer at Iraq's state schools"

Education for sale in war-battered Iraq

The posters' prominence in public spaces shows that these schools' target audience is no longer confined to affluent families – they are now considered an essential investment by many.  This is forcing parents to set money aside from often tight budgets in order to send their children to private schools.

Linda Hassan works in Baghdad. She says to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, that she was forced to enrol her daughter in a private school, even though her salary is modest and private school fees felt like an unaffordable luxury.

She says: "The school is safer for my daughter and will provide her with better opportunities. I want a positive future for my daughter, and for her to get the grades she needs to qualify for a good college. We decided to choose a private school because we know the quality of education in the state schools is extremely low."

Iraq: Private schools normalised as state sector stagnates
Iraq's state education sector was once considered among the best in the region. Since the US-led invasion in 2003 it has been decimated, leading to the rise of private schools [Zaid Al-Obeidi/AFP via Getty]

A history teacher at Al-Hadara school on Falastin street in east Baghdad who preferred to remain anonymous explained: "The private schools use a more modern approach in how they deal with students. This reflects positively on the educational experience for students, and on the way the exams are conducted, even though the curricula taught are broadly similar to those in the state schools. Likewise, the private schools are considered to be cleaner as well as providing snacks for break times."

He pointed out that "legally registered private schools have the same entry conditions as state schools and are subject to the same labour laws and regulations [...]. Fees differ between schools, regions and provinces, however, they generally fluctuate between a million and a half Iraqi dinars ($1,000) and three million dinars ($2,100) annually."

Government-funded state schools in decline

Lina Hamid Washah teaches at Al-Qahtaniyyeh state school in Babel. She says: "Private schools are one factor which has led to the destruction of education in Iraq and the decline of government concern for state schools."

"Private schools are one factor which has led to the destruction of education in Iraq and the decline of government concern for state schools"

Instead, she says, the education ministry is far more interested today in handing out licences to those who want to establish private schools, in an un-planned manner which has decimated the government-funded schools which have sunk to an inferior, second-class status. This endangers the entire educational sector and we may only see its real results in ten years' time, she says.

She continues: "Most private school buildings only have five or six rooms. They sometimes don't even have an office for the director. Moreover, they don't fulfil their whole educational role properly – they should be considered more as spaces for courses to be held in."

While Lina thinks that "the opening up of education is a good thing," she holds that it shouldn't be at the expense of academic rigour or real interest in the educational curriculum. She also points out that although pupils achieve high grades for non-final years at these schools, there are a low pass rate in the final (baccalaureate) examinations.

Perspectives

"This shows that the private schools, many of which are being dubbed commercial ventures, are suffering a crisis of weak standards in education and teaching," she says. She believes that the main reason many families resort to them is that they fear for the safety of their children in the crumbling and dilapidated state school buildings. But she also suggests that some families are choosing private schools because they consider them to represent social progress.

"In any case, state schools are the mother [of education] in Iraq, and the Ministry of Education needs to invest in them, and curb the growth of the private school phenomenon," she says.  

Hassan al-Rihani, an activist and teacher from Dhi Qar province, believes "the experiment" of private schools in Iraq has been a success. He says the competition occurring between them to offer educational services is beneficial and has led to an increased focus on primary and secondary education.

"Some information suggests that politically-linked special interest groups and capital have invested funds in private schools which is unacceptable, illegal and harms the education sector"

"They also provide jobs for many graduates from the education colleges and those with higher education qualifications," he says. However, he also acknowledges the commercial nature of many of these schools, claiming that at least 50 percent of them are primarily focused on financial profit.

He continues: "Developing education can only come from strengthening the skills and capabilities of teachers in the state schools. Without that, all attempts will just be 'patchwork' initiatives, including the private schools, which will not benefit the country in the long term."   

Politically-linked funding 'unacceptable'

In terms of the Iraqi parliament, independent MP Yaser Witwit explains to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that "the private schools are an excellent addition to the education sector, as long as politicians are kept away from them – some information suggests that politically-linked special interest groups and capital have invested funds in private schools, which is unacceptable, illegal and harms the education sector. We must strengthen the educational and administrative oversight of these schools by the relevant committees to evaluate their rules and regulations, their application and adherence to these."

By 2020, there were over 3,300 private schools in Iraq (not including the Kurdistan region). In February 2021, the Ministry of Planning declared its plan to build more than 1,800 schools across the country that year to ease the crisis of the lack of school buildings.

They aimed to solve the issues of crammed classrooms and decrease the use of the dual shift system (where there are separate morning and afternoon student cohorts due to lack of space). The ministry said that "the completed buildings include nurseries, primary, middle and preparatory schools, in addition to classrooms and administrative spaces."

It pointed out that the completed schools were distributed between different provinces, most in Basra where 444 schools were built, then Nineveh (346), Baghdad (214), and Anbar (176).

Iraq: Private schools normalised as state sector stagnates
By 2020, there were over 3,300 private schools in Iraq [Getty]

A Ministry of Education staff member (who wished to remain anonymous) said: "In the last ten years the ministry has granted at least two thousand licences approving the establishment of private schools in different cities in Iraq. The number is rising in the light of new conditions, such as the capping of the number of students per school."

The ministry staff member stressed there were problems in private schools, mentioning that some of them have taken to essentially poaching high achieving students from state schools, by offering them free transport and fee exemptions, in an attempt to then take the credit for their grades.

He admits that previous governments erred in failing to allocate suitable budgets to the Ministry of Education, which could have allowed it to rehabilitate the state schools and raise the level of education in them. Not doing so has caused an exodus of students from them, he says.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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