by Peyman Pejman
(IPS) BAGHDAD -- As almost six million Iraqi children prepare to start their second year at school since the fall of Saddam Hussein, officials see major challenges ahead.
At this time last year Iraq was still fresh from the U.S. invasion that toppled the autocrat. Occupation forces had been on the ground less than six months. Many schools had been damaged by the war or in the looting that followed.
Families fearing for the safety of their children were not sure if they should be sent to school at all. Those who went did not always have books because the caretaker U.S. government had not managed to print enough books free of Saddam's picture.
Children were often asked to use old books after ripping out the picture of Saddam Hussein. A few books reprinted with UN help deleted references to Saddam.
This year officials are promising all students new books, which would mean about 180 million in all.
"We are printing new books for everyone," Saad Ibrahim, who is in charge of the printing project, told IPS. "We have received a grant from the World Bank and other donor countries for $40 million, and signed many contracts with printing houses in Iraq and Jordan and the United Arab Emirates."
Ministry officials have to deal also with school buildings. Eighty percent of about 18,000 school buildings in Iraq need some kind of repair, says Hassanein Mualla, deputy education minister.
About 40 percent need "partial" repair and 30 percent "comprehensive" repair. More than 1,000 need to be rebuilt.
The ministry additionally plans to build 4,500 new schools by 2007. Some buildings at present hold morning, afternoon, and evening schools.
It is not clear how much the repair and new construction will cost, and whether the ministry will have the budget for it. The U.S.-led administration said last year it had spent $70 million repairing and refurbishing buildings.
The education ministry says all work on schools will have to be approved by the government first. "That is for two reasons," Mualla told IPS. "First, we do not want various parties doing their own work. Second, we want Iraqi construction designers to be involved so the work is done properly from the start."
In an obvious jab at the U.S. administration, led by Paul Bremer, he said that "instead of putting some paint here and changing some windows there, it is better to do the job right."
But the biggest task lies beyond repairing buildings and reprinting books. "Nowadays the biggest challenge before the ministry is how to change the curriculum," says Ibrahim. "A national committee was formed last year but I think it will take many years. The education philosophy now has to be changed."
What some people in Iraq mean by "changing the philosophy" is cleansing the textbooks of any reference to Saddam and the Baath Party which Saddam led for his decades in power.
This is a touchy subject. Some Iraqi parties that campaigned for decades to topple Saddam argue that Baath ideology must be eradicated from the memory of the country. Others say this history must be recorded for future generations.
"Until many of these issues are decided by the Iraqis themselves, it would be hard to see how they can start rewriting the textbooks," says a Western official here who asked not be named. "So, until then, they'll just be reprinting the old books."
Some education experts say the philosophy issue goes deeper than de-Baathification of textbooks, and is about encouraging students to think and deduct, not just memorize facts and figures.
Education officials are looking also at redistribution of resources. Under Saddam most schools, teachers, and money went to Baghdad and the biggest cities. Officials say they now have a program to spread resources more evenly.
Whatever the state of the books and the buildings, teachers seem a happier lot. Their salaries have been raised threefold.
September 1, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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