Every year, during the early summer months, Iraqi children take an exam that determines whether they will pass to the next grade or stay behind. This year-end exam is therefore the single most important event of the school year.
Like everything else in Iraq these days, schooling has been heavily disrupted. The damage caused by war and the ensuing looting and burning have devastated an already dilapidated education system. Continuing insecurity – daily bombings, kidnappings and muggings – has kept attendance rates erratic and relatively low, especially for girls. In addition, the looting of schools has left students and teachers with few learning or teaching materials. Intense heat and no more than a couple of hours of electricity a day in most areas make studying at home and in the classroom difficult.
As a result of these adverse conditions the year-end exams for 2003 were going to be cancelled. This would have meant that millions of Iraqi children would have effectively lost an entire year of schooling and would have been required to repeat the same grade.
Recognizing the great value placed by Iraqi parents and the society at large on these exams, UNICEF, with support from the US Agency for International Development, the Governments of Denmark, Italy, the Republic of Korea, Sweden and the UNICEF National Committee for Italy, supported the Iraqi Ministry of Education in planning and implementing them. Fifteen million exam booklets and other essential supplies and equipments were procured and distributed, and a social mobilization campaign was launched to inform parents and communities that the exams would take place. Finally, in early July 2003, 5.5 million Iraqi children were able to take their year-end exam. Girls, many of whom were no longer attending school because of security concerns, were especially encouraged to take the test and out-performed boys at every level.
While overall school attendance rates were 60 per cent immediately after the regime of Saddam Hussein fell in early April 2003, 96 to 99.8 per cent of Iraqi children attending primary, intermediate and secondary schools showed up for the end of the year exam. This was a major achievement, both for the children and their families, as well as for the new Iraqi Ministry of Education (which was severely incapacitated during the war). It has helped restore confidence among students and parents in the education system and greatly facilitated the return of students to schools.
The end of the year exams were part of UNICEF’s Back-to-School campaign for the 2003/2004 school year, which constituted the largest logistical operation in the history of the organization. It involved the production and distribution of over 68,000 school-in-a-box kits and the printing and distribution of 46 million textbooks. In addition, 220 schools damaged by the war have been rehabilitated and work is ongoing in another 25.
The situation in Iraq remains extremely volatile. More than 100 children were reported killed in Fallujah and Basra as a result of the clashes between Iraqis and coalition forces – some of them on their way to school. Still, in June 2004 students flocked to schools throughout the country to take their year-end exams. At the Bilad Al-Arab High School for Girls in the Al-Ma’alif district of Baghdad there was no electricity and everyone was suffering from the intense heat. Khalid Salman was waiting outside the school building with his wife while their daughter, Yusra, took the test.
“There are security guards here to protect the students but we are still frightened,” he said. “In the past, we didn’t accompany our children to school because it was safe and no one dared harm them. I’m hopeful that the situation will improve.”
Sahira Ali, who brought her sixth-grader daughter Rusul to take her exam at the Al-Kahira High School for Girls, tells of her constant fears as she waits for her outside the school gates. “Since I got to the school we heard several explosions and on our way here there was an abduction followed by a police investigation, which delayed our arrival,” she says.
Rana Rasheed, a sixth-grader at the Al-Kahira High School, says her teachers were unable to complete the curriculum for the year because of the ongoing disturbances and lack of security. “Today I arrived at school late because of traffic jams and then there was another delay because the security guards had to search the school to make sure that nobody had placed explosives inside,” she says. “Our movement is extremely restricted. When we walk in the street we are vigilant and apprehensive, and we are suspicious of any person who looks in our direction. Electricity is rare and studying for exams in this hot weather is an ordeal. We sweat in the exam hall with no fans running over our heads.”
Yet neither the oppressive heat nor the constant fear of violence have managed to make Iraq’s children and their parents give up on education. For the children, going to school has become a daily calculated risk; one that they hope will bring a better future for themselves and their country.