Iraq's modern education system was introduced by the British in the 1920s. Enrollment remained limited, however, and when Iraq became a republic in 1958, only about 20% of the population was literate. That figure has risen significantly since then, due to government efforts to build schools and raise enrollment. Literacy rates are generally highest in the cities, and are higher for men than women.
Education at all levels, including university, is free. Co-educational primary education is compulsory from the ages of 6 to 12, although some children begin kindergarten earlier. Unfortunately, school enrollment has fallen since the Gulf War.
At the end of primary school, children must pass an exam to enter the next level. The majority of secondary schools are segregated by sex. In a six-year program, students pass through two three-year cycles that consist of intermediate and preparatory studies, which focus on sciences and the arts. An exam completes each three-year cycle.
After secondary school, students may attend one of Iraq's eight universities, teacher training colleges or technical colleges, which offer vocational training in areas such as business, economics and agriculture. Tuition is free. Most universities and colleges are located in cities, the majority in Baghdad. The University of Baghdad's medical school is well-known for its research facilities. Mustansiriya University in Baghdad (founded 1234) is one of the oldest schools in the Arabic world.
In addition to their regular studies, students of all ages may attend an Islamic school (sharia), where they read and study the Koran. The schools in the cities of Al Najaf and Karbala are famous as centres of Islamic study and still attract scholars.