Education in Kurdistan

13 Mar 2017

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Iraq (and in its autonomous region of Kurdistan) is currently dealing with an enormous educational crisis of 4.7m internally displaced children (UNICEF Child Refugee Crisis: Iraq) as well as at least 64,000 refugee children from Syria (UNICEF-Iraq, now they will learn and become something).


The military situation is still a priority as Iraqi forces launch offensive to drive ISIS from Western Mosul. However international NGOs are active across the country supporting the provision of humanitarian support. Unfortunately there is still an enormous gap between the educational needs of the children and the availability of formal education.


Fundamentally there are four main reasons for this:

  • A weakening of the national teaching profession

  • An educational vision which is in flux

  • Extremely variable facilities

  • Insufficiency of resources

A weakening of the national teaching profession

As oil revenues have declined and the costs of waging war against ISIS have risen, this has led to a very serious economic crisis within Kurdistan (and Iraq). Since 2015 the state has no longer been able to pay teachers’ salaries (Slump hurts refugee schools in Kurdistan region of Iraq). Speaking to a group of Kurdish teachers in Erbil and Dohuk in Feb 2017, they told me that they used to earn salaries of around $1000 to $1500 per month. The most that any of them were now receiving was about $400 per month and many seemed to be receiving nothing at all.


The teachers said that they were keen to remain teaching in their schools, but they couldn’t support their own families doing that. So the teachers were no longer turning up to work full time, doing odd jobs instead, in order to try and earn an income which could support their families.




This is having a seriously negative impact on the national provision of education, but the impact is exacerbated when it comes to displaced and refugee children. In one camp I spoke to about 20 teachers. Some seemed to be receiving salary payments of varying amounts from NGOs. Others were receiving (small) elements of state payments and some were working for nothing. The implication of this is that teachers attendance in classrooms was not reliable and consistent. When I visited one classroom I the older children actually taking the lesson, a regular event. They explained that when their teacher has to take time off, they take it in turns to take the lesson instead.


The numbers of teachers were also extraordinarily low. In one camp I found 4500 children who were receiving an education from 42 teachers. Even if all those teachers were available full time (and we know that’s not the case because they aren’t all being paid) it would mean that each teacher was educating more than 100 children. In reality it means that the children are being educated in shifts, with each group getting at best a couple of hours of lessons a day, well below successful standards internationally.

In many of the camps I found no formal strategy for recruiting teachers. Instead what seemed to be happening was that the camp would look at whether they had anyone in the camp claiming to be a teacher, and then those individuals would become the teachers. The curriculum on offer was then made to match what the teachers were happy teaching. What this meant is that there were enormous differences between the quality and extent of education being offered to different groups of children.


As many teachers have had to take time out from the profession, there is a very significant and growing training need. I was repeatedly asked by teachers on the ground who have had to take time out from the profession, whether there was any training available to help them get back into teaching. A group of 160 teachers recently received training in a camp in Northern Kurdistan (UNICEF, new classrooms and teacher training) but this is a tiny drop in an ocean of need.


The scale of the need became vividly apparent to me when I team taught a lesson with a Kurdish teacher and saw how the tiniest amounts of professional advice and support can have a major impact. I watched a teacher asking questions. No one would respond and the teacher gave the answer and moved on. I whispered a suggestion to the teacher, proposing that he pause for longer and give the children more time to think, before telling them the answer. The teacher tried it immediately and was amazed to find that students started answering questions in lessons. The teacher told me at the end of the lesson that 5 second whispered suggestion was the only teacher training he had had in 10 years as a teacher. He was by no means alone or unique.


When we see data reports which quote figures like 51,000 children returning to schooling in emergency education classrooms in Iraq in 2016 (UNICEF appeals) we must remember that this includes groups of children who are essentially getting an erratic curriculum for small parts of the day, provided by whatever teachers can be found on hand and by teachers who are acutely conscious that they need professional help and support. The situation on the ground is therefore very considerably worse, educationally, than even the official figures might suggest.


Without a concerted effort to rejuvenate the teaching profession in Iraq, it is hard to see how the needs of displaced and refugee children can possibly be adequately met.


An educational vision which is in flux

There is a serious debate going on within Kurdistan about the vision for education. It has been prompted in part by questions about the language of instruction and the introduction of a greater role for English medium teaching across the country.

But politicians and educationalists are also debating far more fundamental philosophical issues about the relationship between learning by rote and learning to problem solve. There is a growing awareness that learning by rote is not going to deliver the higher thinking skills necessary for a modern developing country. But a large part of the current teacher experience and pedagogical processes in Iraq are predicated on precisely that older vision of education.


I have visited both emergency classrooms for displaced children in the desert and mainstream classrooms for resident children in major cities. In both contexts, I found a heavy predisposition towards rote learning. Classes operated largely in silence with children copying from the board or annotating their books.


With a group of 18-year-old chemistry students I held up a bottle of yellowish liquid (dilute orange juice) and I asked the class how I could check whether it was safe to drink. The children knew a lot of facts about chemicals and chemistry but they really struggled to apply their knowledge and come up with suggestions to solve this problem.


The teachers I spoke to said that Education is provided from a text book and teachers are trained to teach by following the book. When I spoke to Educationalists and Politicians they were clear in their mind that teachers can and should be teaching problem-solving and going beyond the text book of facts. But teachers on the ground didn’t seem aware of this and didn’t seem to know how they would actually start delivering problem-solving, as that was a different style of education to what they themselves had been trained to teach.

More fundamentally the physical facilities available for education in the camps often led to ‘learning by rote’ educational styles. Many of the pre-fabricated emergency classrooms are about 35 square metres in size. They are well constructed but they are very small. The children were so cramped that they barely had room to do their own work, leave alone working in groups and problem-solving. The space constraints mean that it is also difficult for teachers to walk around many of the classrooms and look at pupils work, or stop and give help to an individual pupil at their desk.


In Europe, classrooms average around 50 square metres, (albeit with local variations due to differing expectations of class sizes). The difference in classroom size reflects a different vision for education where space is meant to be used to enable group work, discussion, teacher circulation and problem-solving.


Extremely variable facilities

The ongoing military conflict has had a disastrous impact on education across Iraq. At least 1 in 5 classrooms across the country have been damaged or rendered unusable by conflict (UNICEF helps 682,000 children access education in Iraq in 2016 ).

Even where classrooms and schools are still working, the physical infrastructure across the country varies enormously. I visited schools on well-maintained sites that would match anything available in Europe or America. I used digital projectors on smart boards and modern computers in well-maintained classrooms.


However, I also visited other schools in cities were conditions were unbelievably poor. In one school the doors were literally hanging off their hinges and the toilets were so bad that the children and staff were crossing a busy road to use the toilets at a nearby Mosque, rather than using their school toilets.


In the camps, I saw a very varied range of facilities from portable classrooms and tents (UNICEF: Iraq, no one can stop us) to mobile vans (UNICEF-Iraq, now they will learn and become something). Where there were constructed (portable classroom) facilities they were generally of good quality. There were concrete foundations and the buildings were water, wind and Sun sheltered.

I did not see much by way of IT facilities in the camps, but this was often because electricity was absent. In one camp I met a group of children learning about computers by looking at pictures of them.


In some camps, there was an enormous mismatch between the numbers of children and the educational facilities available. In one camp there were educational facilities catering for about 5000 children, but then there were an additional 5000 children who had no facilities and so they were receiving no education at all.


In other camps, I was told that there were shortages of educational facilities, but when I walked around the schools I found empty classrooms. When I enquired why the classrooms were empty I was told that it was partly due to the problem of recruiting and retaining teachers when the teachers were receiving no pay. However, it was also due to a timetabling decision. The school had decided to run classes in Arabic in one shift and classes in Kurdish in a different shift. Yet there were not equal numbers of children speaking both languages. So it meant that half the classrooms lay empty on one shift because there were no children speaking that language. Yet there were other children in the camp who were getting no education at all and could have been using the empty classrooms.

One of the key problems in some of the camps was that there was no over-arching educational management or coordination of the totality of educational resources in the camp. Separate little schools were largely doing their own thing, which was logical and coherent within what they saw as their specific context, but across the totality of the camp it led to wasted educational capacity whilst there were children in the camp unable to get any education at all.


Insufficiency of resources

Every aspect of the problem confronting the education of the displaced children and refugee children in Iraq comes down to insufficiency of resources. I visited primary classrooms which had more than 50 children in them. The children were stacked so tightly together in some classrooms that they were almost sitting on each others laps. And yet there were still other primary aged children in the camp, unable to get an education at all.


A large part of the problem in Iraq is an insufficiency of financial resources to repair schools, to pay teachers, to coordinate educational provision and to build new schools where they are needed. The financial need is well beyond the capacity of the country to meet. Without International Financial support it is difficult to see how education can start to recover in Iraq. It is difficult to see how displaced children or refugee children will get the education they need.

Besides financial resources, there is also an enormous need to train and to retrain teachers and this is something which teachers on the ground were repeatedly saying that they were keen to see International Educational support with. But International charities do not have the resources to meet these needs.


There is a growing pessimism about how education can recover in Iraq amongst the families in the short term. In one camp a number of Kurdish families told me that the weather is now starting to get warmer so they will soon be leaving Iraq to head for Europe, so that they could get their children an education and secure them a future.


When I speak to the business community In Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, they tell me that one of their biggest fears for the future of Iraq is the flight of their middle class to Europe. It costs about $10,000 to pay smugglers for a journey to Europe. Every person smuggled to Europe is stripping money from the Kurdish economy and it is a loss of the human talent necessary to rebuild the country. Significant amounts of money paid to smugglers will go into organised crime and possibly even into terrorist coffers. The scale of the migration is already apparent in Europe as The New Jungle: France grapples with fresh wave of migrants just four months after Calais camp was demolished


There are undoubtedly many problems confronting Kurdistan (Iraq) as it seeks to rebuild itself, but one of the most fundamental problems remain that of trying to ensure that the hope of tomorrow is educated today, for the benefit of the world.


This article first appeared on LinkedIn here 


Dr Rory Fox is the CEO of Edlumino Education Aid. He is an educationalist and humanitarian with over 20 years experience in education. 

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