Mosul, Iraq – It was the end of the school year and the students at Al Huda primary school in Iraq‘s second largest city, 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.
A majority 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 for fear of their safety and indoctrination. According to the United Nations’ children agency in Iraq, “thousands” of children were deprived of a 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, headmaster of Al Huda, said only children of 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 learnt,” he said, noting that most home schooling was limited to basic instruction.
After ISIL’s defeat, the Iraqi Ministry of Education launched an Accelerated Learning Programme targeting children who had missed out on 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. But Al Huda was not selected.
The government also launched an exam for all students to judge whether they should enroll in the grade in line with their age group. Rafh said every student at Al Huda passed the test, despite missing out on three years of education.
The headmaster suggested students may have been assigned to the grade corresponding to their age groups “because the government of Iraq states all students [in the same grade] should be of the same age”. Rafh also said it was a result of pressure from parents who did not want their children to be studying at a lower grade than their age.
Muhammed Sameen, 12, was in grade one when ISIL occupied Mosul.
When he returned to school, he skipped three grades and was enrolled in grade four, but was not taught the content he missed out on.
“The first time I came to school, I didn’t understand anything,” he said.
Two years on from liberation, Sameen has completed grade five and claims he has no issues understanding anything.
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 graduation exam in Grade 12.
Nasrin Mansoor, Save the Children’s National Child Safe Guarding 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.
“This is very challenging and frustrating in the same time.”
Mansoor said it is difficult for the students who skipped school to develop a certain set of social skills, or they may have lost these skills when they stayed 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 outlined the age groups between 12 and 17 are more affected academically, when study becomes more “intense” and topics from previous grades are mixed into the final examination to graduate school.
“Every grade you will learn something that will stand with you in the future,” she said.
Students generally graduate high school, in Grade 12, at the age of 17.
Those students in younger grades who have the opportunity to return to school after ISIS may be able to catch up on what they missed in 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, which 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 irritated 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 it’s 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 at Al Huda said the students were improving year by 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.” However, she said teachers needed to spend more time with students in class so they could grasp the higher-level curriculum.