the number of adults in Iraq who can read and write has plummeted from 90 per cent to 68 per cent since the 2003 invasion, according to new figures, revealing the extent of the damage to the country's shattered education system.
With school buildings destroyed by bombs or occupied by armed militia, and rebel groups urging pupils to stay away, the conflict is rapidly raising a generation of illiterates, aid workers have warned.
The findings were presented at a conference organised by Unesco and the Qatar Foundation in Dohar last week.
Schools have been in turmoil since the US-led invasion of Iraq, four years ago, as teachers fled the country and classrooms were caught up in sectarian violence. Bombings, mortar attacks and fear of kidnapping have scared parents into keeping children at home, driving attendance to an all-time low, according to the latest government figures.Only 30 per cent of children now attend school, down from 75 per cent in 2005-06, according to Save the Children.
"We have no buildings, no teachers, no resources and minimal budgets," said Dr Qutub Khan, an education specialist for Unesco in Iraq.
"What's more, children have seen teachers and friends killed in the classroom."
An estimated 3,000 schools in southern and central Iraq have been looted or destroyed.
Girls, in particular, have suffered from the heightened security as parents keep them at home, fearing rape or harassment. Partly as a result of this, female literacy has slipped to 48 per cent.
Pupils are targeted by rebels with fliers and posters urging them to stay away from school, according to Dr Mohamed Ali Bile of Unicef. "These are no longer safe places," he told The TES. "The children don't know who to trust and are in trauma."
Reports indicate that there has been an increase in religious content in lessons since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who banned Islamic studies.
Reconstruction efforts have focused on putting up new buildings, but specialists believe the money could be better used training teachers.
The UN has set up community learning centres, which teach skills such as yoghurt-making alongside academic studies.
COUNTING THE COST
Adult literacy rate: pre-invasion, 90%; today 68%
Children attending school: 75% in 2005-06; today 30%
Schools looted or destroyed (approximate number): 3,000