Iraq sacrifices the education of half of its students through E-learning

Newton Platform for education in times of COVID-19

The “Rich and Poor Gap” is Flagrant in Iraqi Students access to Education during Covid

Nour Faraj


Two years ago, Mohamad failed his class for the second time in a row. He had to stay in grade 5 primary and watch his classmates pass to middle school. Early last year, the headmaster, following Mohamad’s several quarrels and repeated poor performance, told him he was "a failure and no hope." He called his father, who decided to punish him by getting him out of school.

Mohamad (12 years old) says:

I was happy at the beginning to realize I’ve dropped out of school. However, I watch my friends go in every morning leaving the street empty, and I’m left alone.

Then, Mohamad went back to school, with the promise not to climb the fence in an attempt to sneak out as usual. Weeks later however, he and 11 million students in primary and secondary education were surprised to find out that in-person classes were suspended as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was in February last year.

Following the decision to close schools, the ministry has called for the adoption of e-learning. It also announced the launch of the Newton educational e-platform, which remotely teaches the remaining curricula. However, neither Mohammad nor his sister has joined the platform, since their father works as a taxi driver, and curfews crippled his work. Then, his family’s financial condition deteriorated, forcing the father to unsubscribe from the Internet service.

Elaf Haidar, Mohamad’s older sister, a grade 5 student in lower secondary school said: “I heard there was an educational platform. But I never saw it. We don’t have an internet connection.”

We tracked data from the Ministry of Planning, the Ministry of Communications, and data issued by the Ministry of Education, and others issued by international organizations on education in Iraq. The data analysis has revealed that poor people and women particularly were affected by COVID-19 related educational policies, as they were designed to contain the crisis but were not all inclusive.

Elaf is not the only one who has not seen this educational platform. She and Mohamad will not be the only ones with a hard time finishing off their lessons remotely during the school year. In fact, the official spokesperson of the Ministry of Education has confirmed that only six million students have accessed electronic platforms out of 11 million in primary, middle, and lower secondary schools.

The remaining five million students unregistered on the official platform were not lazy. They simply cannot register because at least 40% of Iraqi families lack internet access. This is according to the Communications Survey issued by the Ministry of Communications in 2019. Meanwhile, the International Telecommunication Union and the World Bank estimate the percentage of disconnected families at 25% and 50% respectively.

Our analysis of the data of the 2018 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey issued by the Ministry of Planning has shown that three out of 10 families in the Kurdistan Region, and six out of 10 families in the Western and certain central governorates have no internet connection. This means that students cannot equally access the Internet, as their financial situation and area of ​​residence predetermine their chances of obtaining an education.

Only 70% of the highest-income families have Internet access, compared to 15% of the poorest.

The spokesperson of the Ministry of Education confirms: "This is not the Ministry's problem. The problem lies in the state's infrastructure in general." For this reason, printed summaries were produced for students to copy and study on their own.

2021 sees a repeat of 2020 scenario

Early last year (just before the epidemic), Mohamad met Salil, who convinced him to go back to school. Salil (20 years old) lives in the house across from Mohamad’s. She volunteered to teach him before the quarantine. She said: "I discovered that he was good in mathematics, but he suffered a lot in Arabic and failed other lessons because he lacked writing skills.”

Lessons with Salil led Mohamad’s performance to improve. However, he stopped receiving any education and lost communication with his teachers when schools closed. Salil was also unable to continue teaching him, while Mohamad was unable to replace her. “I was worried that Mohamad would lose all he that he had learned because of the schools’ shutdown. He desperately needed to test what he learned,” says Salil.

Ahmed (10 years old) was studying an English language curriculum when he was in grade 4 of primary school. His parents work as doctors in the city where Mohamad’s family lives. The difference is that they pay around USD 4,000 annually to teach their son in a private school. Ahmed's mother, Dr. Dhofar Hashim said her son continued to communicate with his teachers after school closed down last year.

Later in April, the Ministry of Education announced the early end of the school year. Moreover, the results of the first semester were taken as passing grades in all school levels except for secondary school classes. Although Mohamad passed, he still demonstrates difficulties with writing.

In November 2020, the Ministry of Education announced that it would allow schools to open in the 2021 school year, which is now nearing its end. The Ministry’s plan was for students in each school stage to have one in-person day per week and learn remotely in the remaining days.

However, 10 weeks into the beginning of the school year, health directorates in more than one governorate announced that the Corona virus had spread in several schools, coinciding with the high infection rates recorded in Iraq. As a result, the Ministry of Education announced the resumption of school closures on February 18, 2021 until further notice, leaving Mohamad out of school once again.

Meanwhile, a televised interview with the Iraqi Minister of Health, Hassan Al-Tamimi, highlighted violations in private schools, where students were attending school for more than one day per week. The Minister said that when schools ignore health instructions, high infection rates will follow. He noted that private schools in particular did not adhere to the one-day-per-week in-person teaching, and continued to operate 3-6 days per week. This was the case in Ahmed's school.

E-learning is not for everyone

As is the case with Elaf and her brother Mohamad, families in Iraq cannot afford the high price of internet subscription. 70% of non-internet subscribers said that its high cost, and the unaffordable price of smart devices represented a main obstacle to their internet access, according to the 2019 Communications Survey.

The Internet subscription fees haven’t changed significantly since last year, despite the Ministry of Communications’ promises to provide students with free Internet, and to improve its quality for regular use. In fact, the average monthly cost is USD 50, for a medium-quality subscription, a rate that Ahmed's family can afford to ensure he continues to receive an education, unlike Mohamad's.

Even if Mohamad and Elaf were lucky, and their father was able to pay for the internet, this would not solve the problem completely, because Mohamad does not have his own smart device that enables him to regularly attend online lessons. He will have to wait for his father to return home to use his phone.

Our analysis of the Cluster Survey Data has revealed that eight out of 10 Iraqi families do not own a computer, while the Ministry of Planning 2018 Report on Poverty Indices showed that one in 10 families does not own any smart devices at all.

Like access to the internet, access to smart devices varies based on region and income. Our analysis of the Cluster Survey Data has indicated a disparity in access even among members of the same family, as these devices are not equally used or distributed among them.

There are no guarantees that students will get smart devices that meet their needs all the time, especially girls, as females have 20% less access to mobile phones than males, and use computers 80% less compared to other members of the family.

The Ministry spokesperson denied that the Ministry had plans to distribute these devices to students, explaining that it "needs cash that the Ministry lacks to buy and distribute them to students."

According to the spokesperson, the Ministry offers the educational TV channel as an alternative to the Internet. He says: "The official television of the Ministry of Education is a good call." Lessons are recorded and broadcast via satellite. However, although 98% of Iraqi families own a television set, the irregular power supply and long hours of interruption pose another challenge for children who attend lessons intermittently and miss many of them. Can they understand the lesson like Ahmed whose teachers explain it directly to him in class?

Hazem Ibrahim, a former educational supervisor and former advisor to the Education Committee of the Baghdad Provincial Council, questions the usefulness of the measures of the Iraqi Ministry of Education regarding e-learning: “Neighboring countries like Jordan and Turkey have paved the way to adopting e-learning by distributing computers and tablets to students, readying them for lessons. They also enjoy a stable electricity supply, unlike us.”

At school, at home, and online... who educates 11 million students?

Hoda Alaa, a primary school teacher in a public school, believes that e-learning poses a challenge for teachers, both in terms of the pressure of overtime work and difficulties in adapting to the new educational method. Moreover, the shutdown of schools has coincided with a general decrease in the number of teachers. Our analysis of the Ministry's data has revealed that the average ratio of teachers to students reached 1 to 25 in primary school and 1 to 19 in secondary. These numbers are below the average in Arab countries. According to World Bank data, the average number of teachers to students in the Arab world is 1 to 22 in primary school and 1 to 15 in secondary.

Most teachers are not prepared to meet the sudden challenge of remote education. The Ministry of Education 2018 data indicates that only 1 in 4 teachers in Iraq has received any type of regular training. For this reason, teachers were hit by the sudden switch to e-learning, especially since the Ministry has only sent them a link on their phones with a couple of e-learning instructions. "We have not received any training. We are learning everything by ourselves," says Hoda.

The Ministry spokesperson said that curfews had prevented "the organization of training and development courses in the presence of a group of educators or teachers, which is why the link was sent." He believes, however, that e-learning has settled the crisis of the lack of educators and some specializations, and solved the problem of unqualified teachers.

Where is the parents responsibility?

Ali Sadiq, a mathematics teacher who has experience in remotely teaching primary school students, with more than a million students following the educational content he shares on YouTube, said: "The biggest share of responsibility will fall on parents to continue teaching their children at home in these circumstances."

But not all parents can teach their children, especially mothers who are usually the ones to shoulder this responsibility. Social class and educational aptitudes are again jumping to the fore. Our analysis of the Cluster Survey Data confirms that a third of women aged between 15 and 49 cannot read and write in Iraq.

The analysis has also revealed that two out of 10 rich women are illiterate, compared to six out of 10 of the poorest. The level of a mother’s education directly affects her children’s ability to enroll or stay in school. When we classified enrollment data based on the mother’s educational level in the 2018 Cluster Survey, we found that the lower the mother’s level of education is, the smaller the chances of her child to enroll in school.

Only 77% of children whose mothers have had no education at all enroll in primary school, compared to more than 92% of children whose mothers enjoyed elementary education or above.

Education sector policies: more spending, less output, and long-term losses

The Kurdistan Region outperforms the central and southern region in educational indicators, starting with enrollment and dropout rates, passing rates, all the way to gender parity rates, although the Iraqi Government allocates around 5.7% of its total budget to the education sector, compared to 2% of the budget as set by the Regional Government.

According to the 2016 UNICEF Report on the Cost and Benefits of Education in Iraq, the spending rate in Iraq has reached IQD3.1 million per student. We found that this rate is 24 times greater than the spending rate in the Kurdistan region per student, or IQD125,000.

Mohamad’s poor form and basic aptitude led him to fail for two consecutive years in primary school. Our analysis of the Cluster Survey Data has confirmed that this happens to two out of 10 children in middle school, as they reach the middle stage late after failing in primary school.

The educational policies in Iraq place millions of students at risk of leaving school, and reduce their expected annual income in later years of their lives.

The loss of Mohamad and his peers will not stop at repeated class failures. We have compared the cluster survey data related to class failures and those related to dropouts. The analysis shows that the groups most likely to fail in different school stages are also the most likely to drop out of school and quit education for good.

Apparently, the Ministry does not have any real solutions for the gap between poor and rich children in accessing e-learning. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Education commented saying: “God himself created this structure. There is rich, and there is poor. Some people take everything and others take nothing... let alone in a country that has suffered all these crises.”

Children who lose their school hours today, will lose a permanent share of their annual income in the future. Due to their insufficient training, they will engage in less developed and sustainable economic activities.

Elizabek Samak, an analyst at the World Bank, has written an article on the potential losses that the educational sector in Iraq would face. She states that even before the COVID-19 crisis, Iraqi children were lagging behind on the educational level that is supposed to secure them a living later on.

“On average, a child born in Iraq today will only reach 41% of his potential productivity when he grows up. Moreover, out of 7 years in school, the actual amount of learning he’s getting is only 4 years.” She adds: “School closures will lead to more learning losses.”

Mohamad plans to work on the days when classes take place remotely. He had previously agreed with the owner of the blacksmith's workshop in the neighborhood to work for him on the days when he would not go to school. Regarding the indirect lessons that he misses, Mohamad says, "I’ll study them later."

Mohamad will earn a few dinars in the blacksmith's workshop today, lose his education, and a share of his expected annual income for life. But at one point in the future, Mohamad may stop to count the losses he suffered as a result of Iraq’s failing educational system, despite him being gifted in mathematics as we were told.