June 29, 2010 / 1:56 PM / 8 years ago

Iraqis seek out private schools to educate children

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Once banned under Saddam Hussein, private schools have flourished in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion as Iraqis become increasingly frustrated with their government’s failure to provide basic services.

Students attend class at Mama Ayser, a private school in Baghdad June 29, 2010. Once banned under Saddam Hussein, private schools have flourished in Iraq since the 2003 REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen

Despite economic woes after seven years of sectarian warfare and insurgent attacks, Iraqi parents are forking out $1,500 a term to send their children to private schools in the hopes of giving them a better future.

There are now 201 private schools in Iraq, not including kindergartens, according to the Education Ministry.

“When I pay this money, I am quite confident that my son will gain a certain level of education in addition to social status,” said Sura Abdul-Hasan, whose seven-year-old son Mustafa is enrolled in a private school. “The money is nothing compared to the benefits my son gets.”

Under Saddam’s Baath party, education was viewed as the exclusive domain of the state and private schools, with the exception of kindergartens and universities, were forbidden.

Education was standardized and the curriculum tended to promote patriotism and one-party rule.

Now, as overall violence retreats despite continuing insurgent attacks, Iraqis are growing frustrated by the pace at which their country is trying to get back on its feet.

Jobs are scarce, bombings and assassinations remain a daily threat, and electricity, clean water, sewage treatment and other basic services are in short supply. Two people have been killed in violent protests over power shortages this month.

The failure of political parties since a general election in March to form a coalition government has cast further doubt over the ability of Iraqi leaders to deliver.

In education, some progress has been made.

Yet, one in five Iraqis over the age of 15 is illiterate, with illiteracy rates of 28 percent among women being double that of men, according to the United Nations.

Eighty-five percent of children aged from six to 11 years attended primary school in 2007, when the sectarian slaughter peaked, compared with 91 percent in 1990, the U.N. said.

The government has increased spending on education, but officials say they lack schools and teachers, many of whom fled abroad. Thousands of families have been driven from their homes by violence, interrupting their children’s schooling.

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There is not enough money for new schools.

“Most of our budget is spent on salaries,” said Muhsin Abd Ali al-Furaiji, a senior advisor in the Ministry of Education.

Furaiji said only 35 percent of existing teachers in the country had been properly trained. In some of Iraq’s 18,000 government schools, there are up to 60 children per class.

Mama Ayser, a private school which caters for children from the age of four months to 12 years, has seen interest soar since it first opened in 2004 and is at full capacity with 500 pupils.

“I have a waiting list,” said headmistress Ayser Al-Azzawi. “I don’t want to take more because I want to give them good service.” There are no more than 20 children per class.

Azzawi said parents are turning to private schools because they want their children to learn English from an early age and be exposed to a broader curriculum than they would get in a public school.

Mama Ayser has running water and electricity — often a luxury in Iraq — as well as computer facilities.

Azzawi said private schools suffer from some of the same problems as government schools, particularly a shortage of teachers and buildings suitable to run schools in.

Safety also remains a big concern and many parents feel more at ease sending their children to private schools which they feel are better protected. Mama Ayser has hired three security guards to patrol its grounds.

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For Iraqi parents who do not live near a private school, they are not always an option in these still troubled times.

University professor Hala Adnan enrolled her six-year-old daughter briefly in Mama Ayser before deciding the long commute was an unacceptable risk.

“I fear someone who knows that her father and I are university professors and that she is in a private school might kidnap her,” said Adnan. “Everything is possible, and of course there are the explosions which never stop.”

Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Michael Christie and Samia Nakhoul

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