Schools Around the World: Turkey

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who led Turkey to independence in 1923, enacted many country-wide reforms that he hoped would modernize Turkey, which was then known as the “sick man of Europe,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

In addition to separating “mosque and state,” and giving women the right to vote, Ataturk mandated that every child attend primary school, the Council reported. He also changed the script from Arabic to Latin, to facilitate Turks learning other European languages. Decades later, in 1997, Turkish Parliament passed a Basic Education Law and lengthened compulsory education from five to eight years, according to UNICEF.

In Turkey, schools are coeducational but boys have higher rates of enrollment and literacy than girls across all grades. Although a 2002 study showed increased enrollment of girls since the 1997 reforms, “[t]raditional reluctance to send or keep the girl child in school still persists in the lower income bracket and rural areas,” UNICEF reports. Gender differences in schooling are also more pronounced among certain ethnic groups. For example, “43% of Kurdish-speaking girls from the poorest households have fewer than two years’ education, while the national average is 6%,” according to The Guardian.

Like most western countries, Turkey’s education system includes preschool, primary school, middle school, high school and university. Noncompulsory preschools, established in the early 1950s, gained acceptance in the 1980s in the larger cities. Many parents, however, are still reluctant to cede the responsibility of educating small children to an establishment outside their household. Primary and middle school are compulsory, but laws regarding middle school aren’t well enforced, especially in rural areas, where such schools are sparse, according to a Library of Congress report published in 1995.

Though some aspects of Turkey’s education system may appear antiquated, in other ways its schools are viewed as progressive. High school is free for students but not obligatory. Students can choose between lycee (general) and vocational schools, the Library of Congress reports.

Imam-hatip schools, vocational schools developed specifically to train Muslim teachers, have been the focus of recent media attention. At these schools, students are taught about Christianity and Judaism as well as Islam. If exported to places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, some proponents of the schools believe they could replace madrasas, schools widely believed to train terrorists, and could help stamp out Islamic extremism, according to Voices of America News.

Still other governments, notably Uzbekistan’s, are suspicious of the Turkish schools’ motives. According to Radio Free Europe, Uzbek officials “charge that graduates of Turkish schools promote an aggressive form of Islam and even a role for Islam in political life,” even though Fethullah Gulen, the founder of the Gulen movement, specifically denounces religious extremism in favor of tolerance.

Admittance into public universities depends largely on a single test: OSS, the Student Selection Exam, which is overseen by the Council of Higher Education, known as YÖK.

Students who can afford to pay for test preparation schools, known as “dershane,” have an advantage over poorer students. “Many students in their fourth year attend dershane over their normal high school classes because they believe passing the test is more important than their regular schoolwork,” Matt Porter, a Fulbright Fellow Teaching in Turkey, wrote for Al-Noor, the Boston College Undergraduate Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Journal.

Students can rank their preference of school and course of study, but test scores determine which departments and universities a student will be assigned to. In recent years, however, the YÖK has begun to factor high school GPA into its decision process.

The Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development published a report on the status of education in Turkey in 2007 and established several guidelines for education reform, which included “extending universal access to pre-school education to all children from three to five years of age,” “increasing the number of students, especially girls, who successfully make the transition to secondary education,” and “increasing services to students with special needs to levels comparable to those in other OECD countries.”

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “many Europeans fear that allowing the poor, populous, Muslim state to join the EU will flood Europe with poorly-educated immigrants.” Serious education reform not only means a better future for Turkey’s children, it will also help Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and improve its political and economic standing on the continent.

Related Link Resources
Council on Foreign Relations: Turkey for High School Teachers
The Library of Congress: Country Studies: Turkey
The Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development
Al- Noor: The Challenges of Education in Turkey: A Viewpoint