After decades of state control of secondary education, Iraq is letting bloom hundreds of private schools that parents hope will send their sons and daughters to the country’s top universities.
But the wave of private school openings is also a sign of the deterioration of Iraqi public education amid tough sanctions, the 2003 invasion and, most recently, sectarian conflict that has overthrown Baghdad’s control over much of the country’s north.
In recent years, affluent Iraqi families have been leaving public schools in droves as overcrowding, crumbling classrooms, poor security and corruption among teachers and government officials grows worse. Private schools have greeted them with open arms.
An Iraq parliamentary committee recently determined that the country needed to build more than 6,000 schools to replace derelict or ruined facilities and keep up with population growth. The government has been making little progress in reaching that goal.
But in 2012—the most recent year for which data is available—the Iraqi Education Ministry granted 1,200 licenses for new private schools throughout the country. There are now around 600 private schools in Baghdad.
“Public schools are bad—not clean, no air conditioning system,” said Mohammed Hakam, a University of Baghdad economics student whose younger brother attends the Al-Amsour private school in Baghdad. “There is just one or two fans and they might not work. Private schools are clean, less crowded, with private generators and air conditioners. This is important because the country suffers from electricity shortages.”
Hakam said his parents spend $1,200 a year to send his brother to the school. Per capita income in Iraq is around $7,200 a year. “This is not cheap in Iraq but still it is worth it,” he said.
Those relatively high prices have led private schools to compete for students, forcing them to increase their quality, some parents say.
“The majority of the private schools are good,” said Maysaa Al-Hilaly, a kindergarten teacher in Baghdad who teaches in a public school but sends her sons to a private school. “If they were not good, nobody would enroll in them and they would close their doors. They do care for their reputation and so as to attract more pupils in the future.”
Even public-school administrators admit that the private schools are producing excellent students.
“There are many private schools whose students get excellent marks and are among those competing with the finest public-school students in Iraq’s central final exams,” said a school inspector in Baghdad who asked to remain anonymous. “Many of them join the best universities in Iraq.”
But Al-Hilaly also acknowledged that private schools, while vital in cultivating an elite class, couldn’t meet the needs of the vast majority of Iraqis. “The standard of the students is much better in the private schools,” she said. “Most of them are of the upper middle class and we can say from an intellectual class.”
For those Iraqis who can’t afford to go to private schools, the situation is dire.
Iraq’s school shortage has put intense pressure on public high schools to accommodate growing student populations with less classroom space. In Al-Diwaniyah, the capital of Al-Qadisiyah Province in central Iraq, there are 850 groups of students using 550 buildings, forcing students to attend classes in shifts.
Government incompetence and corruption isn’t helping.
In May, officials in Diyala Province in eastern Iraq tore down 179 public schools in order to rebuild them. But the project has been beset by delays. Parents now must shuttle their children to schools in far-off parts of the region. Many are reluctant to send girls or young children across such long distances out of fear for their security.
Throughout Iraq, when officials manage to build schools, they often use shoddy materials, including mud, while corrupt bureaucrats abscond with the rest of the funding, some parents say.
Corruption also reaches into the classroom. Many parents complain that teachers in Iraqi public schools often make extra money by pressuring their students to pay them for tutoring outside normal school hours—a tradition also common in some other Arab countries. At a cost that’s not necessarily significantly higher, private schools maintain a superior atmosphere of genuine learning, some parents said.
Many Iraqi parents remember the 1980s, when Unesco recognized the Iraqi education system as one of the most developed in the Arab world. They want their children to have the same opportunities.
But economic sanctions imposed in 1990 crippled Iraqi education. Only a handful of excellent public secondary schools remained, like Al-Mutamayzeen for gifted boys and Al-Mutamayzat for gifted girls, and both require IQ tests for admission. (The “gifted” schools are in Baghdad, Basra and—before it was taken over by ISIS militants—Mosul.) A handful of notable private schools also catered to the elite, including the Baghdad College for Boys established in 1931 by American Jesuits.
Then, as Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed in 2003, the education system collapsed entirely. Eventually, uprooted Ba’athist headmasters and others founded new private schools to fill the gap, often with teachers and staff who lost their jobs during crisis years following the American occupation.
Today, signaling how parents are seeking an education for their children that upholds, rather than upends, the traditional quality of Iraqi schools, the curricula in private and public schools is almost entirely the same. The private schools tend to use the same lessons that were taught in the Iraqi education system’s heyday, before the sanctions and fighting took their toll.
Only Baghdad College and a few international schools—like the recently opened Ishik Turkish School in Baghdad—appear to deviate from state-mandated courses. Otherwise, students will study the same Arabic lessons, for example whether or not their parents are spending a small fortune to educate them.
“Unfortunately, Iraqi students are studying 25-year-old curricula,” said Bahaa Mahdi, 20, a student at the University of Baghdad who attended a private school. “There is no difference whether it is private or public.”
But private school students are learning in up-to-date classrooms while public students are struggling to find a seat.