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Overcoming obstacles

Seamus Harkin reports from Erbil

Before 1990 the education system in Iraq was considered one of the best in the Middle East. By 2014, however, an estimated 22 per cent of Iraq’s adult population had never attended school and only 9 per cent had completed secondary school education. Illiteracy is widespread, especially among women.

Since 2003 conflict has destabilised the education system, with thousands of schools damaged and looted, schools closed for extended periods and widespread teacher absenteeism due to security threats. Iraq has high levels of violence, mostly sectarian.

Until 2014 there were daily bombings and assassinations with about 700–1,000 deaths a month. The main challenge for anyone working here is to find a way to deliver sustained and sustainable training given the extremely fragile security situation. It is both unrealistic and expensive to provide the required security for international trainers and consultants to work on the ground in Iraq.

The British Council is committed to supporting the ministry of education in upgrading teachers’ English language skills. The ministry values English as a key life and employability skill. Euromonitor reported in 2012 that both local and international companies in Iraq recognise the importance of English, as do individuals – in some cases English speakers can earn double the salary of non-English speakers.

Our goal is to build capacity within the system so that there is a group of well-trained professionals able to provide language training for other teachers and gradually raise proficiency levels across the sector. Originally, we planned to select a group of twenty trainers from Baghdad for trainer training. As we searched it became clear that English language proficiency levels had fallen to such an extent that we were unlikely to secure teachers whose own language skills were good enough to support others, and that we would need to first provide English language training to move a group of teachers to C1 level.

Given the security situation, developing an online solution appeared to be the way forward. That is not without its problems, though, as under 10 per cent of the population uses the internet and connectivity is often unreliable.

We experimented by using an online placement test with a group of forty teachers from Baghdad. Initially, around half of them told us that they did not have an email address, but within a month we had a group of 38 ready to take the test. One teacher told me later that she had never used a computer before but that her son had helped her create an email account.

The online placement test we selected was easy to use. A link sent to the teachers took them directly to the log-in page where they had to type the assigned username and password. Only five teachers managed to take the test successfully by the deadline.

A week later, with a great deal of telephone guidance, another twelve had taken the test. Not only was technical infrastructure going to be a barrier to success, but digital literacy was also lacking, and it was clear there would need to be work in this area along with English language skills.

To save time and make the experience less stressful for the teachers, we decided to use a more traditional pen and paper placement test. Fortunately, we are able to draw on a network of trainers, not just English specialists, from an earlier EU-funded and British-Council-managed project to carry out the tests in the field. We will also draw on these trainers to provide basic IT training to the teachers before they embark on the online course to ensure they have the skills to be successful.

Our goal remains the same – to have an elite group of trainers in Iraq who are able to offer quality English language instruction to other teachers. The journey has changed and we have had to re-route along the way. It will take longer but we will reach our destination.

Seamus Harkin is English projects manager for British Council Iraq, based in Erbil