Mosul, Iraq – It was the end of the school year and the students at Al Huda primary school in Iraq‘s second-largest city of Mosul were as spirited as ever, running around and playing with their friends. Many said they were sad to see school break for the summer holidays.
Most of the 320 students at the school had missed out on their education when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) occupied the city in June 2014.
The armed group took over government offices and schools, introducing a new curriculum focusing on their harsh interpretation of Islamic law and weapons training.
Families that were not able to flee before ISIL’s advance on the city said they kept their children out of school out of fear for their safety and that they might be indoctrinated. According to the United Nations’ children agency in Iraq, thousands of children were deprived of formal education because of ISIL.
“When ISIL came, I thought I would never come back to school again. I can’t believe it,” said 12-year-old Najd Ayad Hamdi, a student at Al Huda.
Most of Mosul’s students returned to schools only after Iraqi forces recaptured the city in 2017, but many are now struggling at school after missing three years of education.
Tawfiq Rafh, headteacher at Al Huda, said only children from ISIL families attended Mosul’s schools during the group’s reign in the city.
“In each grade normally there would be at least 40 students [at Al Huda], but the kids all stayed at home, only the ISIL children went to school, maybe totalling only four or five students in each grade,” Rafh said.
“The fathers and mothers [of Mosul residents] helped the students at home, so they didn’t forget what they already learned,” he said, noting that most homeschooling was limited to basic instruction.
Children trying to catch up
After ISIL’s defeat, the Iraqi Ministry of Education launched an accelerated learning programme targeting children who had not been able to attend school. Under the programme, 26 out of 650 schools in Mosul were selected to run classes on the weekends to help students catch up on subjects they had missed. Al Huda was not selected.
The government also launched an exam for all students to decide if they should be enrolled in a school grade that matched their age or if they should be held back.
In spite of missing three years of their education, every student at Al Huda was assigned a grade corresponding to their age, according to Rafh.
The headteacher suggested this may have been “because the government of Iraq states all students [in the same grade] should be of the same age”, adding that pressure from parents could have played a role, as they would not have wanted their children to study at a lower grade than their age.
Muhammed Sameen, 12, was in grade one when ISIL occupied Mosul.
When he returned to school after liberation, he was enrolled in grade four but was not taught the content he missed.
“The first time I came to school, I didn’t understand anything,” he said.
Two years on, Sameen has completed grade five and claims he has no issues keeping up.
Another student, Abdullah Safa Rafa, also skipped two grades when he returned to school after ISIL’s defeat, but said he feels comfortable with his grade now.
“When they opened the school I didn’t know anything, after that the teachers tried to help us understand the higher-level work,” Rafa said.
Observers, however, expressed concern that the gap in students’ knowledge would affect their ability to pass end-of-year exams and ultimately the final secondary school exam in Grade 12.
Nasrin Mansoor, Save the Children’s national child safeguarding coordinator in Iraq, said the fact children were skipping multiple grades would affect them “greatly”, noting that it would impact the children emotionally and socially as well as academically.
“There’s the knowledge gap which reflects badly on the performance of the child … in situations where they will struggle with the topics that have been already clarified to their peers but not them,” Mansoor said.
She said it is difficult for students who skip years of school to develop a certain set of social skills, or they may have lost these skills when they had to stay at home during ISIL’s rule.
“This can cause stress as the new student integrates in their class with children who might be strangers to them.”
Mansoor clarified that age groups between 12 and 17 are more affected academically because they are at a level where studies become more “intense” and topics from previous grades are mixed into the final examination to graduate high school at the end of grade 12.
“Every grade you will learn something that will stand with you in the future,” she said.
Students generally graduate high school at the age of 17.
Students in younger grades who are able to return to school after ISIL may be able to catch up on what they missed by taking summer classes.
Other challenges to students’ education include managing the trauma of witnessing conflict and the lack of facilities at schools.
Zeina Awad, spokeswoman for UNICEF in Iraq, explained the children had witnessed violent and horrific experiences that no child should ever go through.
“So they’re back in school [now] but a lot of them are dealing with the impact of the trauma they have witnessed,” Awad said.
Mansoor said children’s trauma can be triggered or aggravated by changes in voices or sounds, causing them to tense up or even attack people around them.
Some children have difficulty understanding and processing what they have witnessed and experienced while living in a conflict zone, she added.
“They need a psychiatrist to work with them … all of the things they need to get over it are not available [in Iraq], like psychiatrists,” Mansoor said.
UNICEF also said one in two public schools in Iraq require more resources following damage suffered during the war.
“The lack of investment into the education sector is at crisis level,” Awad said.
Iraq only spends 4.1 percent of its GDP on education, whereas the global target should be 5.8 percent, she said.
Students at Al Huda said returning to a destroyed school, without basic facilities such as whiteboards, shocked them and discouraged them from learning.
“When I came to school and saw it destroyed, with no desks, I faced a lot of issues… I couldn’t focus on the teachers,” said Sameen.
Despite the challenges, teachers like Fatmah Mazen – a first grade teacher at Al Huda – said the students were improving year after year.
“This year is better than last year for the kids … because now it’s two years since opening the school. The first year when kids came to school they felt strange. Thanks to God it’s better now.”