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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 October, 2003, 00:40 GMT 01:40 UK
A tale of two Iraqi schools

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online in Baghdad

BBC News Online's Martin Asser is reporting from Baghdad six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein. We asked readers to tell us which aspects of life in post-Saddam Iraq they most wanted him to cover. Your response included suggestions to look at how life has changed in Iraqi schools:

The Tigris Secondary School for Girls is one of the top educational institutions in Iraq catering for 900 13- to 17-year-olds in the smart Alawaya area of Baghdad.

Iraqi girl students
Students at Tigris, one of the top schools in Iraq
Members of staff - austere and strict as befits this convent-style establishment - nevertheless have springs in their steps this term and smiles playing on their lips.

Gone are morning rallies when the girls had to line up and shout the praises of Saddam Hussein.

Gone are the sinister Baath-party members foisted on the school by the old Ministry of Education.

And back at her headmistress' desk is Sister Clara - the doyenne of Tigris School who was removed in 1999 and replaced with a political appointee.

"Now we can spend all that time wasted on politics once again on educating and cultivating the girls," says Sister Clara.

Not that she wasted her own time in those four years in the wilderness. She was transferred to a less politically-sensitive Baghdad school and left it, she says with satisfaction, in a far better state than when she found it.

New-look school

Tigris School is now receiving a face-lift as part of a programme by the US-led coalition to improve conditions in Iraq - after the bombing campaign in March and April, the looting that followed it, and the years of degradation that preceded it under the self-serving and internationally-isolated former regime.

Sister Clara
Headmistress Sister Clara has returned to teach at Tigris after four years
But it is going to be a massive job across Iraq, with some 7,000 schools in need of repair, according to the US.

The work at the Tigris School however, which is being funded by a Spanish NGO, is nearly finished.

The only question is what to do with a now-redundant part of the school infrastructure - the solidly-constructed marble niche complete with red-tiled roof that once housed a portrait of Saddam Hussein.

"Imagine, they made the parents spend two million Iraqi dinars (about $1,000) for that," says Sister Clara. "I think we'll put in a scene from Iraqi history to fill the gap."

As we walk around the school, the headmistress talks about the most crucial change in her view that has come about in the Iraqi school system since the US-led coalition took over Iraq: better wages.

Saddam portrait place
Parents donated money for this marble niche which housed a portrait of Saddam
Before, teachers got paid a laughable amount - $2.50 a month - meaning schools suffered chronically from neglectful teaching (teachers spending time on private pupils) and corruption (teachers taking bribes to issue certificates). Now most staff get $120.

"Our educational qualifications had become worthless under the old system," says Sister Clara wistfully.

Faces changed

At 1215 precisely an extremely loud electric bell sounds and hundreds of girls pour out into the small open space not being taken up by the builders.

Much giggling and silliness greets my appearance, but quickly some of the more self-confident girls are ushered forward to answer questions about how their lives have changed.

As it happens their views are strikingly different to those of their teachers.

Few care about the disappearance of Baathist propaganda from school life, but many complain of not having enough books and the fact that when school ends they have to stay at home because the streets are not safe.

Opinion is split on whether things were better under Saddam Hussein or not, the girls apparently reflecting their parents' views on the matter.

"My father was a party member and he has not worked for six months," says Mays Muhannad. "Saddam was a great leader who made law and order."

"Only the faces have changed," says another girl who doesn't give her name. "There is no future here. I want to go to Sweden, where my father lives."

"We were hopeful that the Americans would make life better," says Fatin Ahmed. "They've given us more freedom, but what about electricity and water, and most importantly security?"

Vandalised school

Towards the outskirts of Baghdad in a much rougher part of town, we come across another girls' secondary school where teachers and pupils are united in their view of the new system.

Iraq classroom
A ransacked classroom in Aisha school
Aisha School has been unusable since it was completely vandalised and looted after the fall of the regime, angry locals taking revenge on this symbol of loyalty to Saddam.

The headmistress, Miss Haifa, had been an enthusiastic Baath party member and her colleagues say she had welcomed Republican Guard units onto the campus to defend Baghdad from the US invaders.

There had also been a large Baath party office on the premises, whose occupants made sure teachers' seniority in the school be matched by seniority in party hierarchy and they organised the children's attendance at party rallies and events.

"I had decided - if the Americans had not won this war - to leave teaching because of the interference by the party office," says English teacher Miss Ban as she picks her way through the debris now littering the school.

"But now it is worse, because we have no school and we have to teach afternoon classes at the next-door primary school, between one and four o'clock.

"This is a very bad time. Ramadan is coming and we will all be tired then, and late afternoon is most dangerous to be outside because all the police have gone home.

"Until now, we have lost 50 girls whose parents have taken them out of the school," she says.

Miss Ban
Miss Ban says 50 students have dropped out of her unsafe school
Aisha School teachers have been in belated negotiations with the American forces to clear up the school - only after Miss Haifa lost her job in the de-Baathification process.

But Miss Ban says that teachers suspect the NGO that has been assigned to do the work is not taking the job seriously.

"Where are they? Perhaps they have taken on too many jobs from the coalition and cannot cope," she says.

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