School reforms and Islamisation letting Turkish children down

In the almost two decades since Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, about the only thing to remain constant in the education system is the steady stream of policy changes. 

The government has already made major changes to the education system 14 times in the last 16 years, and now Education Minister Ziya Selçuk is preparing for another round of reforms.

What that means is that in 16 years no students have graduated from schools under the same system they started with, an issue that has provoked heated debate among Turkish educators. So too have the working conditions of contracted teaching staff and those paid hourly.

“Education is becoming like a jigsaw puzzle, and we are only going backwards,” Kazım Yılancı, the head of the educators’ union Eğitim-Sen’s branch in Kadıköy, on Istanbul’s Asian side.

Yılancı, a staff teacher at a state school in Istanbul for 15 years, said he had witnessed a decline in state schools, a situation he blamed on the marketisation of education and the growing influence of religion in the school system.

The most striking sign of the latter has been the rise of the state-run religious İmam Hatip schools. Since the rise of Islamic political parties in the 1990s, the schools have gone from being specialised institutions teaching future religious functionaries to now teaching more than 1 million students aged between 10 and 18.

They have come to particular prominence under the rule of the Islamist AKP. Last year, the schools received 23 percent of the funding teaching 14 to 18-year-olds in upper schools, despite only teaching 11 percent of the country’s students in that age range.

A part of the increasing prominence of Islam is the rising influence of religious foundations. Some of these, a notable example being the Ensar Foundation, have been granted the power to audit and set the school syllabus for hundreds of religious education classes. 

“(Religious teachers from the foundation) come to the schools with books made for the module by their foundations and take over from the teachers. What right do they have to do this?” said Yılancı.

The foundations’ place teaching students at schools – a significant portion of whom do not share the Sunni Muslim faith followed by the foundation – is already a cause of serious concern for parents. Even more serious warning signs were raised in 2016, when a child abuse scandal affecting dozens of children came to light.

In March 2016, Muharrem Büyüktürk, a teacher with the Ensar Foundation, was charged with molesting and raping of 45 students aged between nine and 10-years-old who had been boarding at a dormitory run by the foundation in the central Anatolian city of Karaman between 2012 and 2015

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan looks on as a student reads the Koran at the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Imam Hatip School in Istanbul, Turkey, September 29, 2017. Yasin Bulbul
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan looks on as a student reads the Koran at the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Imam Hatip School in Istanbul, Turkey, September 29, 2017. (Yasin Bulbul)

“When they’re still trying to involve a foundation that’s responsible for the rape of 45 children ... it’s time to stop and take stock of the situation,” Yılancı said.

This is perhaps the most striking example of the danger posed to children by the education system in its current state. But school children are also being let down on a grand scale by other structural problems, not least an employment system that discriminates against teachers who are paid hourly.

The system means that some teachers are paid just 1,500 lira ($280) a month, less than half of what typical staff on contracts earn for the same hours and well below Turkey’s minimum wage. Moreover, these workers lose out on pay for holidays and sick days as well as a significant part of their social security payments, which they must make up out of their own pockets or face fines.

“We’re of the lowest status,” said Aylin Altunkaya, a drama teacher who is paid hourly. “We get paid monthly according to the number of classes we teach. The pay is determined by the number of students in the classes and is never more than 20 lira an hour. Despite this they expect a lot of you. They think drama is just about performing plays and so they expect a performance on every special day.”

For Altunkaya, the importance of classes like drama, music and art is disregarded equally by parents and by the system, which refuses to give the teachers contracts and leaves them without social security. “We’re in the same situation as undocumented workers. Our colleagues don’t even count us as teachers,” she said.

Meanwhile, the quality of staff across the board has regressed to the extent that a recent report found that newly graduated teachers in subjects such as physics, mathematics and chemistry were able to answer on average just 10 out of 50 questions on their subjects correctly.

For Abbas Güçlü, an education journalist at Milliyet newspaper, the situation is hardly surprising.

“This isn’t only the case with teachers. We see a similar situation in almost every sector,” Güçlü said. “It should be different with teachers, but they’re opening education faculties (of such a low standard) and passing teachers that if you expect more you’re dreaming.”

Güçlü said the problem lied in the education system’s focus on testing at the expense of deeper learning. With such stringent attention paid to passing exams, he said, teachers are denied the freedom to take initiatives in the classroom that would truly benefit their students.

Instead, teachers are forced to stick to syllabi that have become increasingly politicised. School textbooks have been found to contain sexist, nationalistic and religious material, said Yılancı. At the same time, the AKP’s conservative religious roots have had a great impact on the teaching of science: biology classes, which are now limited to two hours per week, have not included teaching the theory of evolution since 2017.

While students are asking for English language and media literacy lessons as electives, teachers said the system was pushing them towards religious classes instead.

Private schools in Turkey have undoubtedly fared better in recent years than state schools: the average score for state school students in the high school exam was 339.94 out of 500 compared to 380.55 at private schools.

However, teachers at these schools are arguably under even more pressure than their colleagues. 

“We have to do so much administrative work: lesson plans, grading, evaluation reports, activity plans … We’re obliged to work even on weekends. It’s tiring,” said one private school teacher who declined to be named.

“The exploitation and work load at these schools is at such a high level that they practically work 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Yılancı said. “And they don’t have job security, even if they’re contracted. If the firm changes its economic policy, you can get fired. It doesn’t matter how well you do your job.”