Turkey: Proposed Education Reform Bill Gets Failing Grade
Turkey faces numerous domestic challenges, but reforming the country's out-of-date education system is without a doubt one of the most significant ones. No matter how you slice it, Turkey's performance in the field of education leaves much to be desired. Guven Sak, a columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News and head of the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), laid out Turkey's education woes in a recent piece:
Let me split the problem into three components. First, Turkey has a young population. The average age is still around 28.5. That is a good thing. With that much potential, Turkey’s European convergence should have been through education and training. Neither the European Union nor our government had the wisdom to design the process accordingly. Secondly, our population has only 6.5 years of schooling on average. Turkey has the youngest population with the poorest education performance among the top 20 economies in the world. That bodes ill for our future. We have a population of middle school dropouts. On top of that, OECD PISA tests show that our students’ academic skills leave much to be desired. Our kids are among the worst around the block, which any decent economist will tell you puts us straight into the middle income trap. Thirdly, Turkey’s female labor force participation ratio is the lowest, even among Muslim majority countries. Only one among four women participates in the workforce. Why? Because of low educational attainment.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has recently introduced draft legislation that would reform Turkey's educational system, most significantly increasing the level of mandatory schooling from eight years to 12 years. But the proposed legislation is being heavily criticized, accused of making the situation worse rather than better, particularly in terms of getting students to stay in school longer. As Nicole Pope points out in Today's Zaman, the proposed new structure of the Turkish education system could open the door for students being put on a vocational track (i.e. apprenticed) at the tender age of 11. Writes Pope:
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.
But even more concerning, critics say, is what the draft bill might mean for girls' education. According to the proposed legislation, parents would be allowed to home school their children after they've completed their first four years of school. The worry is that will open the door for parents, particularly in rural and conservative parts of Turkey, to keep their daughters from going to school. As Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink writes on her blog, some people are calling the draft bill the "Come on Girls, Be a Bride" law -- a play on "Come on Girls, Go to School," the name of a government campaign designed to end the disparity in boys and girls enrollment in Turkish schools. The proposed law, Geerdink writes:
....means that girls will have a shorter school career. Now, compulsory education lasts eight years, starting at age 7. The AKP has managed to increase the number of girls enrolling in school, but not necessarily the number of girls graduating from primary education: there are many drop-outs. Girls are needed at home, or there is not enough money to send them to school, or they need to contribute to the family income. Or it’s about time they got married, or at least prepared for it.
What will the effect be of a new school system that makes it very easy to stop sending your girl to school after she has completed the first block, at age 11? It gives parents a logical moment to reconsider their choice of sending their daughters to school or not. When their daughters are eleven years old, they will have to choose whether or not to enrol them in the second block. In the current system, there is no such opportunity before the eight years of compulsory education are finished. Result: girls will drop out earlier.