In Iraq the public education system is facing huge challenges. Often two or three schools will share one building for all their classes and pupils are taught in shifts. In the southern Iraqi province of Basra, one building has become notorious because seven schools share the rooms. Often classes consist of about 60 pupils at a time. And if the classrooms are not crowded, then they may well be old and unsafe and lack facilities like bathrooms or air conditioning.
There are around 1,800 public schools in Basra and they occupy around 1,000 buildings in the province, Maki Mohsen Mahous, the director of Basra's provincial Department of Education told NIQASH. Many of the buildings are actually unsuitable for teaching and, he says, “we still need to build another 700 schools to solve the problem of overcrowded classrooms”.
There are also growing doubts that the provincial government will be able to do this because of the country's financial crisis, which has seen provincial budgets diminished.
These are just some of the reasons that parents like Basra father, Salman Ahmad, are choosing to send their children to private schools. His three children now get transportation to school, the classrooms have modern equipment and they are heated and air conditioned, Ahmad says.
“All this is great,” he says. “The only problem I foresee is that the school could raise its fees at any time, without any restrictions.” Like many other parents, Ahmad is concerned that prices will rise beyond his family's means and his children's education will be interrupted.
There has been a dramatic increase in private schools in Basra. In 2007 there were five. Today there are around 466, says Bassem al-Qatarani, a spokesperson from the Department of Education. An estimated 20 percent of the province's 800,000 students are registered at private schools now. And al-Qatarani thinks that current policies will only increase that amount further.
“Private schools have been able to overcome some of the problems faced by the public system,” says Nathem Karim, a school supervisor, referring to a lack of modern teaching methods and equipment. “We may actually see the whole sector privatized eventually.”
“Private schools run classes continuously,” notes Firas Ali, the head of a Basra private school. “They don't interrupt their classes during the school year. There is also no delay in getting books and stationery to students, as happens in public schools.”
Additionally Firas is happy that Basra's private schools are providing job opportunities to both male and female teachers who had not been able to get work in the state sector. “It has also allowed retired educators, who are specialists, to return and share their experience and expertise.”
“Students of Basra's private schools are ranking first in a variety of educational areas,” Ali continues. “We attract the best teachers and our quality of instruction is high.”
However that kind of success is coming at an ever increasing cost. As demand for private education grows in Basra, so do the school fees. Primary school students have to pay about IQD1.5 million (around US$1,128) per year and secondary school students pay between IQD3 million (around US$2,200) and IQD5 million (around US$3,700) per year. As it does elsewhere in the world, this means private schools are only available to the children of wealthier local families.
Despite all the problems pupils face at public schools, the children of lower and middle-class families still attend them. As Hassan Salman explains, although he is an employee of the General Company for Ports of Iraq, he has four children. He discovered that if he were to send all his children to private schools it would cost him over IQD8 million (around US$6,000). “And I only earn about IQD11 million a year so it's impossible,” he explains.
Karima Hussein is an English teacher at one of the private schools and believes the ongoing increase in fees is a form of blackmail that the families cannot escape once they are in the school. “Prices have increased so fast,” she says. “Schools also make the children buy books and uniforms and these are sold for high prices.”
The continuous rise in fees has caused the provincial government to step in. They want to pass a law to regulate private school fees. This law is only a draft right now and needs reviews, says Amin Mansour, who heads the provincial council's Committee on Education. But Mansour feels sure the law will pass.
“The law says that school fees shouldn't exceed certain amounts for certain ages, with primary school children's fees capped at IQD600,000 [US$450] and secondary school students' fees capped at IQD2.5 million [US$1,800].”