Consensus on Turkey's education reform lacking despite upcoming vote

As parliament prepares to vote on the government's education bill this week, opposition parties and other interest groups are concerned the bill has not been discussed democratically and will promote religious education.

By Erisa Dautaj Şenerdem for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 20/03/12

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The AK Party's plan to reform the country's education system has kept the political agenda tense for several weeks, as opposition parties and civil society organisations remain concerned the bill could promote the teaching of Islam in early education.

  • Girls attend a class at the Kazim Karabekir Girls' imam-hatip School in Istanbul. [Reuters]

    Girls attend a class at the Kazim Karabekir Girls' imam-hatip School in Istanbul. [Reuters]

The government plans to divide schooling into three tiers of four years each – the so-called 4+4+4 education reform – and to extend mandatory education from eight to 12 years. The bill calls for a fixed curriculum for the first four years of primary education (first stage) and the introduction of a set of electives in the second four years (second stage) that could include religious and vocational courses. According to the bill, education would be made compulsory for the third tier, too, and students would be able to either follow regular schools or receive distance education at this stage.

Engin Altay, a member of parliament from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) who is also an education expert, told SES Türkiye that the major aim of the bill is to spread religious education to all primary education schools.

Noting that he expected electives to be dominated by Koran and Arabic language courses, Altay also said this would serve to "de-facto" transform primary schools into "imam hatip" schools. Set up to train religious functionaries in the 1920s, imam hatip schools have expanded rapidly over the past two decades, providing a more religious based education to students, although not all graduates become religious functionaries.

Mehmet Bozgeyik, the secretary-general of Eğitim-Sen, an Ankara-based teachers' union, also said they expect religious courses to dominate the electives. "[On the other hand] compulsory courses – such as social sciences, Turkish language, literature and mathematics – will decline. This is problematic," he told SES Türkiye.

There are fears that the education reform's main aim is to raise a religious generation, no doubt incensed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, himself a graduate of an imam hatip school, who said last month his government sought to raise a religious and conservative youth.

"The [new bill on education reform] does not carry such an objective. It would be illogical to go for such new legislation only with the purpose of bringing up a religious generation," Ali Şahin, an AK Party deputy, told SES Türkiye, noting that it did not bring any compulsory religious curriculum and that students would select whichever courses they desired from the electives list in the second stage.

The 4+4+4 education system will promote equal opportunities, flexibility and freedom of choice in education, according to Şahin. While the current system aims to train a "monotype individual", the new system aims to bring equal opportunities by removing existing barriers to vocational education, he said.

Şahin also noted that providing more vocational education would help address the need for trained technical workers, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

However, CHP's Altay argued children who finished the first stage of primary education were too young to make a free choice of their own on electives, particularly on vocational courses. He also added children risked being subjected to their parent's or community's pressure while deciding on whether to choose religious-based courses or not.

Moreover, the government is criticized for having prepared the draft without asking for the general public's consensus. According to Bozgeyik, the draft law was prepared without first consulting other stakeholders. "No democratic approach was applied [during its preparation]," Bozgeyik said.

Meanwhile, CHP's Altay claimed 26 of the 30 organizations invited by the parliamentary sub-committee on education reform to assess the bill allegedly failed to look at it positively.

The education reform bill was approved by the related parliamentary committee amid a brawl between AK Party and CHP members on March 11th. The bill is expected to be put to a final vote in parliament this week.

Meanwhile, Bozgeyik said members of education unions all over the country would protest by not working on the day the bill is discussed and put to vote.


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