But a new government proposal to raise compulsory education from 8 to 12 years has triggered a heated and divisive debate because, in its current form, the reform appears ill-conceived and raises serious concerns. The move to address Turkey’s educational shortcomings should be welcome, but consultation with civil society groups on how to best do so seems to have been very limited.
The government clearly aims to roll back some of the changes introduced after the “post-modern coup” of Feb. 28, 1997, which raised compulsory primary education from five years to eight, thus preventing students from entering imam-hatip schools after fifth grade while also penalizing the graduates of these establishments by limiting their access to higher education.
While stating its goal to increase compulsory education to 12 years, the government plans to divide this period into three four-year segments: primary, middle and high school levels. The debate centers on the middle segment, which would be carved out of the current eight years of primary. More than the division itself, it is how the government intends these four years to be used that has proved controversial.
Government officials claim more flexible options, including vocational training, are needed at this level. There is plenty to be said in favor of a well-regulated system of apprenticeship and vocational training at a later stage, but children should not be forced on such a path as early as 11. And even manual workers these days need a solid foundation of general knowledge to compete in the global market, something they couldn’t possibly gain in only four years of primary school. As the ERG, one of Turkey’s leading education organizations, lowering the age for apprenticeship to 11 might even violate international rules on child labor.
The proposed reform also offers students the option to opt out of the school environment and turn to “open education.” Home schooling is, as we know, offered in many developed countries, often in strictly regulated conditions. But the practice remains controversial almost everywhere because it deprives children of the very important socialization experience that school attendance provides. This function of the school system is particularly important to help Turkey narrow its wide gender gap. If women are to become more involved at all levels in society, young children of both genders have to learn to interact from a young age.
Home schooling also requires a great deal of parental involvement and supervision, and therefore seems particularly ill-adapted to Turkey’s circumstances. In rural areas in particular, many parents have low levels of education and would not be able to support their children. Studies show that the parents’ socio-economic background influences the students’ educational achievements, particularly when combined with wide disparities in the quality of education offered across the country. Yet, while most Turkish parents want their children to be well-educated, less advantaged people would be most likely to keep their children at home, particularly their daughters, either for economic or cultural reasons. Enrolment in primary education stood at 99 percent in 2010-2011, up from 85 percent in 1997-1998, but this significant progress has only been recorded in recent years and civil society organizations like ERG fear the new proposals could severely undermine recent advances and lead to setbacks.
Any significant overhaul of Turkey’s education system needs to be decided only after wide consultation with civil society actors and experts in the field. Rather than trying to offer too many options, the government should concentrate primarily on consolidating its recent achievements, ensuring that all students, particularly girl students, actually attend school regularly and complete their studies. This battle is still ongoing, as is the struggle to improve the quality of education to ensure Turkish students fare better compared to their international peers.