Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002, Turkey has had six education ministers, each of whom made major changes to the education system, some argue to turn students into guinea pigs. The most significant change, bulldozed through parliament amid fistfights and protests in March 2012, expanded the imam-hatip religious schools and introduced Quranic studies and the life of the Prophet Muhammad as elective courses in public schools, among other changes. The opposition has long decried the Islamization of education, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted on raising a “devout generation,” lauding imam-hatip schools, which train Muslim clergy and offer extensive Quranic studies.
In early June, a wave of protests spread through leading high schools around the country, with students demanding “modern” education. The spark was ignited at the graduation ceremony of the prestigious Istanbul Erkek Lisesi when the students turned their backs in protest to their principal as he delivered a speech. The protest continued the following day at the school’s traditional party, which the principal chose not to attend. The students unfurled a large banner demanding “a modern and not partisan administration,” setting the tone for more protests to come.
Students at the Galatasaray Lycee, one of Turkey’s oldest and most influential schools, quickly followed suit, calling for a “modern” principal who had not succumbed to the “servitude of any sultan” and could live up to the legacy of Tevfik Fikret, the famous Turkish poet who headed the school in the late 19th century. Within a week, students and graduates from about 370 schools had issued similar statements. One school, in the Black Sea city of Samsun, was raided by anti-terror police, called in by the principal.
Erdogan and his new education minister, Ismet Yilmaz, blamed anti-government forces for inciting the students, and many in AKP circles wondered anxiously whether a "second Gezi Park" was on its way. The protests have remained peaceful so far.
Under the AKP, education at Turkey’s mainstream high schools notably declined, as the government focused on expanding imam-hatip schools, using both incentives and coercive measures to increase enrollment at them. Erdogan, himself an imam-hatip graduate, has routinely promoted these schools as the “apple of our eye,” calling them “exceptional” and “moral” centers of learning. In doing so, he not only raised alarm about the future of secular education, but ostracized the students at other types of schools.
Following the 2012 amendment, drawn up hastily and over the head of the then-education minister, the government changed the administrators of schools virtually overnight. The newcomers belonged overwhelmingly to a trade union close to the AKP.
The real problem with Turkey’s school system, however, is the quality of the education provided, but no progress has been visible in this regard. Take, for instance, several statistics from this year’s nationwide university entrance exam, which more than 2 million people took, including 912,000 students graduating from high school. In the latter group, the average number of correct answers for the Turkish-language and social sciences tests, each consisting of 40 questions, stood at 19.31 and 10.45, respectively. As for the science test, about 750,000 of the 2 million who took it had no correct answers, while another 500,000 managed only three at most, leaving little to be said. In global school rankings last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based on test scores in math and science, Turkey fared 41st among 76 countries, hardly good news for a country that boasts one of the world’s top 20 economies.
The AKP, however, has shown little concern about the current situation. With another controversial amendment in March 2014, the government laid hands on 174 schools that produce the country’s highest achievers, dubbing them “project schools,” with the stated aim of raising future scientists and inventors. Many of these schools have established traditions for selecting their principals from among in-house candidates and through exams. This approach was discarded, and the government appointed new principals of its own choosing who were unfamiliar with the schools and their students. Moreover, thousands of experienced teachers were dismissed due to what was described as "mental fatigue" and replaced with younger colleagues who belong to the pro-government trade union.
The makeover has also affected social life at these schools, where students tend to have an avid interest in arts, sports and scientific and creative activities. Events the students wanted to organize were axed in favor of religiously themed conferences and activities. Some principals were accused of interfering with how students dress and trying to keep boys and girls apart.
All this led to the wave of protest, with graduating students speaking up for modern, scientific and secular education. The rebellious schools may represent only a small portion of Turkey’s 10,550 high schools, but they boast the country’s brightest students. Hence, whether the government lends them an ear or not is vital to Turkey’s future.
Representatives of critical trade unions in the education sector are both upset and disappointed with themselves. “The kids had to raise their voices after we, the adults, failed to do what was up to us,” Veli Demir, the head of the Education and Science Workers Trade Union, told Al-Monitor. “Our respectable schools, and therefore their students, were ostracized, while the imam-hatip schools were glorified.”
According to Demir, the number of secondary imam-hatip schools grew from 1,099 in 2012 to 1,961 at present, while imam-hatip high schools increased from 708 to 1,149 in the same period. Meanwhile, the number of students attending them has risen from 932,000 to 1.2 million. Back in 2002, the figure stood at 71,000, he said, recalling a leaked audiotape from a 2013 meeting in which Erdogan’s son Bilal allegedly lectured education officials and pro-AKP charity representatives on how enrollment in imam-hatip schools should reach 1 million in a short period of time. “They don’t want students involved in science, arts and sports, but students who are [only] pious,” Demir said.
Another critical trade union leader, Kamuran Karaca of the Education and Science Laborers Syndicate, said the main reason why students at the so-called project schools rebelled was the appointment of principals with religious motivations, keen to bring “all kinds of Islamists” to the schools “under the pretext of panels, discussions or book days.”
“The students, however, demand secular, scientific and modern education and want activities accordingly,” Karaca said. “What they imposed was a dead end, and now that this has become obvious, they are targeting the students and trying to portray them as puppets. We’ll only move forward if we remember that these places are not mosques but schools. Otherwise, the problems will persist and our future will be undermined.”