KUT, IRAQ // Schools in Iraq are now worse than they have been at any time during the past two decades, according to a senior provincial education official and teaching staff. They said the schooling system had collapsed and that attempts to rebuild were paralysed through mismanagement by incompetent political parties. "Things have gone wrong from the very top to the very bottom," said Afrar Jameel, head of the education committee in Wasit province. "The ministry of education is largely staffed by unqualified people in high positions who get their jobs through political connections not through their competence. They are undermining education standards. "If I could recommend the solution to the problem, I would say sack everyone who is a political appointee and just leave behind qualified bureaucrats. I would even sack the minister of education himself because all of this is his responsibility." Mrs Jameel is an elected member of Wasit provincial council, not an employee of the ministry of education. Her job is to monitor standards and ensure the local council co-ordinates properly with government officers on schooling issues. Stressing that the education system had been in decline throughout the 1990s, as Iraq was crippled by international economic sanctions, she said governments had failed to remedy the situation since the 2003 invasion by the United States. "We have children here who leave school unable to read or properly write their names," Mrs Jameel said. "There are schools in which entire year groups fail to pass the year's studies. In others, six or seven per cent of students will get a passing grade." The rising influence of religious political groups, which have replaced the secular Baath party, has added to the problems, she said. "In the years after 2003, we have seen a growing religious influence on the education system and is has not had a positive effect. "The powerful religious parties dominate central government and local government and they are not interested in education, they are interested in power." Mrs Jameel, a practising Shiia, and a member of Fadhila - the Islamic Virtue Party - said uneducated religious figures were to blame. "There are people from so-called religious parties threatening teachers if they fail poor students, just because of family or party connections. Teachers are afraid of the religious parties. They are scared that if they step out of line - if they fail the wrong student, for example - they will be fired and no one in Iraq can afford to lose their job. "And there are still militias. Teachers are afraid and they are right to be afraid." A major problem for teachers trying to stop the decline in standards has been a growing number of school holidays for religious purposes. With Shiites dominating the Iraqi government, a large number of Shiite holidays have been written, either formally or informally, into the school calendar. Most recently, Shiites marked the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, with many walking to Kerbala. From Kut, that can take more than a week. "The school calendar used to have seven to eight months of classes a year," said Abu Mohammed, an Arabic-language teacher with 30 years' experience. "Now with all the new holidays, we are teaching for closer to four months a year. There is always some holiday or another." He said his school, in Wasit province, had effectively shut down unofficially for 10 days during the Imam Hussein memorial in February. "I turned up every day, and so did some of the other teachers," he said. "But many didn't, they just didn't come to class. So of course the students don't come to class either and you are not allowed to complain because it's the holiday for Imam Hussein and that's a sensitive issue for the religious parties." Abu Mohammed asked not to be further identified out of fear he might lose his job. At the provincial government offices in Kut, Mrs Jameel said she had complained about the growing number of holidays, but to no avail. "Under Saddam Hussein, we had too many holidays but it had reached a ridiculous level. The teaching syllabus no longer fits into the school years. Teachers rush through it and even good students can't always keep up." In Wasit province, there is also a severe shortage of schools, according to community leaders. There are 600 schools in Wasit, with 200 new buildings under construction, serving a total population of almost 950,000 people. "We think we need 2,000 schools to meet our needs," Mrs Jameel said. "Schools are so overcrowded that each building is divided into three schools, a morning school from 8am to 11am, a midday school from 11.30am to 1.30pm and an afternoon school from 2.30pm to 4pm." Wasit provincial council has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars from its budget building new schools, according to the outgoing council chief, Mohammed Hassan Jaber. "We've funded 35 schools this year and that's not something we are supposed to have to do, the money should come from the ministry of education," he said. "It's the responsibility of the central government but it wasn't happening." Between 2003 and the start of 2009, 17 new schools had been funded by the central government, according to Mr Jaber, while the provincial council had pumped money into 200 new facilities. Another major weakness is the quality of new teachers, according to long serving school staff. "Recent college graduates are themselves the product of a bad school system so they are not good teachers," said Um Yaman, a history teacher based in Wasit at a school with 400 students. "Some of the new teachers barely have a proper high school education themselves." Um Yaman - she also asked not to be fully identified for fear of losing her job - said some officials within the ministry of education in Baghdad were fighting to improve the situation, and had increased pay for senior staff to US$700 (Dh2,571) a month, a living wage in Iraq. "I have seen written directives about raising standards, improving facilities and getting more school supplies but it never gets translated into real action," she said. "It is dangerous for the future. We cannot build a secure and successful country on weak foundations, without education there will be no progress here."