Ministry report shows Kurdish schoolchildren held back by poor Turkish

Kurdish-speaking children are at a significant disadvantage in Turkey, with poor command of Turkish correlating to low scores not only in language-based subjects, but also mathematics and science where they struggle to understand the teachers.

Language is a major issue in Turkey, central to the debate about Kurdish rights. Though mother-tongue education has for decades been a central demand of the Kurdish movement, it has been rejected by successive Turkish governments. There is a broad consensus against it amongst Turkish political parties who fear it would undermine national unity and fuel calls for secession by Kurds who make up about 20 percent of Turkey’s population of 80 million.

A nationwide Education Ministry report highlighted the problems faced by Kurdish students, many of whom first learn Turkish when they start school. 

While the Monitoring and Assessment of Academic Skills (ABİDE) study provoked a great deal of public debate about the state of education in Turkey, there was little discussion of the correlation between academic performance and whether Turkish is the students’ first language.

The Education Ministry report did not provide data on the mother tongue of students, but figures cited in the study showed that a significant number of fourth grade students in southeastern, central-eastern and northeastern Anatolia, the three regions home to most Kurds, had higher numbers of children with basic or below basic proficiency in Turkish.

The percentage of those with below the basic level for eighth graders fell significantly in the three regions, but the percentage still at the basic level remained similar at around a third. Only around 5 percent of eighth graders in these regions had an advanced level of Turkish. 

Many children in Kurdish families live in exclusively Kurdish-speaking households, and it is not uncommon for grandparents, who often help with childcare, to not speak Turkish at all. 

Regional Boarding Schools, which house children from rural areas where there are no schools and are widespread in the east and southeast, had the lowest scores in Turkish.

The report said only around half of fourth and eighth grade students in the three regions were unable to compare statements, relate situations or texts to each other or make deductions. They would also fail to “make sense of the whole from clues within the text”.

That has a knock-on effect on other subjects such as mathematics and science where levels of knowledge mirrored the below average scores in Turkish. Regional Boarding School students scored lowest of all.