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February 26, 2012, Sunday

A masked debate on education

A draft law proposed by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) regarding secondary education has triggered a hot debate in Turkey.

Influential NGOs and many columnists are claiming that if the proposal is accepted, enrollment, particularly among young females, will decline and educational efficiency will be adversely affected. The proposal suggests that the current eight years of compulsory schooling should be broken into two four-year-segments. The new system will allow students to enter vocational education pathways at the end of the first four years, at the age of 11. The new bill also seems to facilitate “home education” after the first four years are completed.

For those who are not familiar with Turkish society and politics, it is quite difficult to understand why such “innocent changes” have fired up this much of a political debate. According to critics of the proposal, the real intentions of the Government are twofold:

Permit the reopening of the vocational religious high schools’ first four year block, closed during the so-called post-modern coup d’état of February 1997 and install a system that will cause girls to drop out of school at an early age.

I think the focus of these criticisms is misplaced and the protagonists of the debate seem to be involved in a masquerade. The Turkish economy has very low levels of education. The average number of years spent in education for by those currently in the labor force is less than seven years and this figure is increasing too slowly. According to the Household Labor Force Survey of 2009, out of 6.2 million young people between the ages of 15 and 19, there were almost 1.5 million young women (50 percent) and 1.4 million young men (43 percent) who were not participating in the education system. For the sake of comparison, let me remind you that the OECD average enrollment rate is 82 percent for 15 to 19 year-olds. Such low levels of education constitute a major obstacle to Turkey’s economic development.

I believe that the underlying cause of the Turkish workforce’s relatively poor level of education is basically the famous “Tehvid-i Tedrisat” (Unification of Education) law, a corner stone of the reforms of the 1920’s. The policies encouraging the assimilation of Kurdish populations are probably another reason, but let me leave that for another column. I would only like to remark that, according to the Turkish Demographic and Health Survey conducted in 2003, the share of primary school graduates in the population whose mother tongue was Kurdish was 45 percent, while the same percentage was only 5 percent for those whose mother tongue was Turkish.

Historically, a uniform public education did not correspond fully to the demands of conservative families who were asking for a complementary religious education for their children. These families were also particularly reluctant to send their daughters to school after reaching puberty, as the headscarf was not allowed in the public school system. Along with the transition to the pluralist parliamentary system, vocational religious high schools were presented as a solution, or rather a bypass, to these dilemmas. These schools were officially designated to provide vocational education to those who wanted to become imams, while their real function was to establish a track parallel to the general one. Female students are allowed to wear headscarves to school in vocational religious high schools. The graduates from these schools were able to enter university without any barriers, at least until Feb. 28, 1997. After this date, the graduated “imams” were penalized in the nationwide university exams if they were to choose a university track different to their vocation. The new proposal obviously intends to remove the barriers imposed by the military in 1997.

Anyway, there has not been much criticism of this removal. The problem is that the proposed law suggests that two sets of four years -- rather than eight -- of uninterrupted compulsory education are necessary under the pretext that vocational education should ideally start at the age of 11. I think this assertion is not only wrong but also unjust. The rapidly changing technical and professional environment requires, more than ever, a good general education that equips the new generation with the capability of adapting to changing technology. However, Tevhid-I Tedrisat is inescapable. In order to complement the general educational pathway with a religious one, the conservative camp has no choice but to continue with the subterfuge of the religious vocational schools.

The real aim of the possibility to choose home education is less clear. The critics suspect that this possibility would have adverse effects on female students. The families that are already reluctant to send their daughters to school without a headscarf following puberty may prefer to keep them at home. This problem may easily be overcome by allowing the headscarf in schools after four years of compulsory education. However, note that the headscarf is still not officially allowed at the tertiary level and the freedom to wear it is only a de facto situation. Can you imagine the intensity of the battle if the government ever decided to allow the headscarf in high schools?

In fact, Turkey urgently needs real educational reform, which should aim for both a rapid increase in the average number of years of schooling and an improvement in the quality of education, while reconciling the demands of conservative families with a modern education. This requires a revolution in people’s mentalities as well as their imaginations. Unfortunately we are not there yet.

Previous articles of the columnist