Rising discrimination in education

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One can observe that most of the discussion around religion and education takes place on the axis of state and parents’ rights. The right of children to raise their voice on their own issues or their right for freedom of religion and conscience is almost never mentioned.

In recent years, the Turkish education system went through a number of radical and rapid changes. The important ones among these were the “4+4+4” system which changed the duration, structure and content of obligatory education; the introduction of the TEOG exam which regulates the transition to high school; changes to the categories of high schools; abolition of the university preparation centers (dershane) and new rules governing the appointment of teachers and directors.

These changes are accompanied by important recent developments and debates, such as the ones concerning  electives on religion and values, as well as less recent ones such as the obligatory Religious Culture and Morality class or the discussion about the Imam-Hatip High Schools. In addition, there is an ongoing controversy about the segregation of girls and boys in education, which further fuels woes about sexism in the classroom.

One needs to take a closer look at various policies adopted in recent times and their possible impact in light of the struggle against discrimination in Turkey under two themes, namely religion and education and gender equality in education.

Recent developments about Imam-Hatip schools

According to a calculation by the ERG (Education Reform Initiative) based on Ministry of Education data, in the academic year 2013-14 one out of every ten junior high school students were enrolled at Imam-Hatip schools, which reopened in 2012. The percentage of students enrolled at Imam-Hatip High Schools in total rose from 2.6% in the academic year 2002-03 to 11.5% in 2013-14.

The latter percentage is close to the percentage before Imam-Hatip junior high schools were closed and the coefficient system made it harder for their graduates to enter faculties except theology. On the other hand, two contemporary trends suggest that this percentage could rise even further in the near future. The first is the fact that the Ministry of Education has radically increased the number of Imam-Hatip schools.

The ratio of Imam-Hatip schools to all public schools has risen significantly since the transformation of regular high schools in the academic year 2010-11. This ratio went up from 5.8% in 2010-11 to 8.9% in just three years. In this three-year period, the total number of new public junior high and high schools opened reached 1,039, of which one-third were Imam-Hatip schools.

Imam-Hatip students constitute 11.5% of all junior high and high school students, and the distribution of new junior high school students by programs suggests that this figure may soon increase. For instance, in the academic year 2012-13, while around 10 out of every 100 public school students were enrolled at Imam-Hatip schools, this figure rose to 16 among newly enrolled students. As such, the weight of Imam-Hatip students in the overall student body may increase in coming years.

The rise in the number of Imam-Hatip junior high and high schools and in their student numbers cannot be explained only by the Ministry of Education’s assertiveness or only by social demand. There are parents who want their children to be raised in a conservative and/ or religious environment and NGOs which work for this cause.

Meanwhile, it is more difficult to obtain information about how decisions of transforming other schools into Imam-Hatip schools or the setting up of new Imam-Hatip schools are taken. Furthermore, during the implementation of the TEOG system it was seen that even children who do not choose Imam-Hatip schools can be assigned to these schools. Decisions about the transformation of regular high schools and the programs of newly opened high schools are not based on consensus, and the decision-making criteria are unclear.

However, the absence of transparency and decisions lacking comprehensive analysis are not limited to Imam-Hatip schools. For example, in recent years, a target cited in a number of policy documents was to increase the number of vocational and technical school students in the total junior high and high school student population. It is not clear with which criteria this target has been decided upon, or whether it will respond to global developments or to the need of enhancing the quality of vocational and technical education, the urgency of which is agreed upon in Turkey.

It needs to be remembered that most of the time it is not students but their parents who decide on the school or program and that parents make such decisions within the limits imposed by the system. In regard to both vocational/technical high schools and Imam-Hatip schools, it is youth who are most affected by the ongoing change and the promotion of one school to the detriment of the others, and they can sometimes be stigmatized due to the type of their school. As such, it is important to stop stigmatizing youth for their choice of religious or non-religious education—whether it is their own choice or not—and to avoid reducing morality to religion.

Options for the obligatory Religious Culture and Morality class

In September 2014, European Court for Human Rights ruled that Turkey violates the European Charter of Human Rights with the obligatory Religious Culture and Morality class taught two hours to grades four through 8 grades and one hour to grades nine to twelve. It had already ruled similarly in 2007, in the case Hasan and Eylem Zengin vs Turkey. In February 2015, ECHR declared that it rejected the Turkish demand for appeal, thus rendering its resolution conclusive.

The Religious Culture and Morality curriculum last renewed in 2011-12 still includes elements of “religious education,” that is, elements which uphold the principles and practices of a certain belief or religion. However, according to human rights norms, if a lesson is obligatory, it must turn into a “lesson on religions” which stands at an equal distance to all religions and beliefs, and explain perspectives of morality not based on religion.

In the current curriculum, expressions such as “our religion, ” “our holy book Quran” and “our prophet” are used frequently, with the assumption that everyone has the same belief. In addition, other religions and beliefs are judged from a Sunni Islamic perspective and placed in a certain hierarchy, which further distances the Religious Culture and Morality lesson from becoming a “lesson on religions.” Furthermore, in the past, the state had legitimized the content and obligatory nature of this lesson with an alleged social demand for it. However, the offering of elective religious classes in junior high and high schools in 2012 makes it necessary to review this situation.

To summarize, the Religious Culture and Morality lesson should be either transformed into a fully-fledged program of the study of religion, or mechanisms of exemption should be established to defend individuals against discrimination. If Turkey adapts the first option, the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools published by OSCE in 2007 may offer guidance. On the other hand, even if education programs are reorganized in the light of Toledo Principles such as “identifying and questioning negative stereotypes attributed to certain religions,” which are urgently needed in Turkey, it is necessary to be aware of the fact that the eventual classroom experience will largely be shaped by the teacher.

As such, even if the curriculum is realigned with universal human rights norms, the fact that the Religious Culture and Morality lesson is mandated by the constitution is a controversial issue. The exemption that is provided only to Jews and Christians needs to be extended to everyone. Students should be able to get an exemption without having to declare their religious beliefs, and those exempted can be offered another lesson suiting their wishes.

Finally, most debates about religion and education center around the state and parents’ rights. However, children should have the right to express their viewpoint on issues which concern them and should have the freedom of religion and conscience. This poses a problem not just regarding the Religious Culture and Morality lessons, but also regarding the electives on religion. Furthermore, there are numerous findings suggesting that these electives have literally become obligatory for many students.

Gender equality in education and girls’ high schools

Debates on ending mixed-gender education came up during the 19th National Education Council require us to become aware of and discuss at length a tendency already present in Turkey. To put it clearly, there are already girls-only schools in Turkey at the junior high level and some claim that these schools play a crucial role in the scholarization of girls.

Among the key examples of this perspective are the Ministry of Education’s bulletins 2010/38 and 2014/8. The former bulletin launched an education campaign which encourages the academic development of girls in technical and vocational schools as a means of increasing girls’ access to education. The latter states that all-girls schools may be set up to “increase the rate of scholarization among girls.” In addition, even Imam-Hatip schools are inaugurated under the same pretext.

[According to Article 15 of the Basic Law on National Education] it is essential to provide mixed-gender education. On the other hand, the same article states that, ‘Due to the type of education and given some conditions and challenges, some schools may offer girls- or boys-only education.’ The expression in the bulletin may be said to promote girl-only education due to necessity rather that the type of education or conditions. Furthermore, channeling men and women into different types and programs of education according to their gender and gender roles is in clear breach of the principle of gender equality in education. As such, one can reach the conclusion that girls-only schools are promoted [by the Ministry] as a ‘necessary’ means of increasing the scholarization of girls (ERG, Education Monitoring Report 2013, s. 82).

In the 2010-11 academic year, 218,953 students were enrolled at a total of 649 girls’ vocational or technical high schools, and the so-called ‘Anatolian’ girls’ vocational or technical high schools. In 2013-14, these figures had risen to 264,068 students and 837 schools. Although the number of these schools and their students do not account for a large part of the total vocational, technical or junior high education, the upward trend is visible. Nevertheless, the exact numbers of students enrolled at mixed or single-gender schools are unknown although it is required that the state to keep track of these statistics and disclose them to the public.

With the abolition of General Directorate for Girls Technical Education, such single-gender schools were placed under General Directorate for Vocational and Technical Education, and in line with the reduction of types of vocational schools they were renamed Vocational and Technical Anatolian High Schools in the academic year 2014-15. As such it is hard to estimate the exact gender breakdown of their student profile. However, even if they have been renamed, if their curriculum remains the same, these schools will continue to be perceived as girls’ high schools.

Here it needs to be indicated that a study from 2011 puts into doubt the benefits of girls’ technical and vocational schools in terms of bolstering women’s access to a high-quality education and career and in establishing gender equality in these processes. According to the same study, “of the four fields to which students are channeled, only Information Technologies are innovative in the professional training of girls. The other fields are largely similar to the education offered in the past in girls institutes and are thought to offer programs that do not challenge traditional gender roles.”

We need to carefully assess policies which suggest that an increase in the number of all-female schools will make it easier for families to send their girls to school. First of all, there are no published studies about the effect of girls-only education on parameters such as enrollment, continuity, graduation and transition to higher education. The increase in the number of these schools needs to be judged in the light of such findings, and can only be considered as a provisional, short-term measure.

On the other hand, as underlined by the Education Monitoring Report 2013 issued by ERG, “the increase in the number of girls and boys educated in segregated atmospheres, coupled with the sexist attitudes of teachers and the sexist content of education, could lead to an ossification in the medium and long-term development of gender roles and patterns instead of being challenged by education.”

What really needs to be discussed is how education can contribute to the individual empowerment of women and to the amelioration of women’s social position; how teachers, schools and curricula can become more sensitive to gender. In this regard, the Ministry of Education’s recently launched Project to Support Gender Equality in Education is a valuable initiative which needs to be monitored.

Indoctrination in education

In conclusion, after starting its third term in office in 2011, the ruling party increased its clout in the field of education and implemented a number of changes at the beginning of this article. On the other hand, many aspects of education are left unchanged, and these demand as much attention as the changes being implemented.

Foremost among these is the absence of children’s say in their own educational life, and the lack of a school environment supportive of critical thinking. Like previous governments, the current government considers education not a field which strengthens and liberates the individual but rather as a means of raising future generations upholding the values of its own political line.

In short, indoctrination in formal education in Turkey is still going on as strong as ever, even if it has been changed in various aspects.

1 This ratio was calculated for 5th and 6th grade students in the academic year 2013-14, because in that period, the Imam-Hatip schools only had students in these two grades.

2 In the academic year 1996-97, the ratio of Imam-Hatip students to all junior high students was 12.2% and their ratio to junior high and high schools students combined was 9.3%

3 These data were published only once in the Ministry of National Education's Junior High and High School Monitoring and Assessment Report, in 2013. Since no 2014 version of the said report was issued and as National Education Statistics provide the breakdown of new enrollment data only for general schools and vocational schools, the data for the period after 2012-13 is not presented here.

4 For a news article published on this issue, see http://www.aljazeera.com.tr/al-jazeera-ozel/istemeden-meslek-lisesine

5 For a detailed assessment of these targets see Eğitim İzleme Raporu 2011, pp. 114-177; http://erg.sabanciuniv.edu/sites/erg.sabanciuniv.edu/files/EIR2011.19.1… and for the breakdown of high school students according to type of school see. Eğitim İzleme Raporu 2013, pp. 70-74; http://erg.sabanciuniv.edu/sites/erg.sabanciuniv.edu/files/EIR2013.web…

6 For a detailed assessment see the following report on behalf of Education Reform Initiative. Mine Yıldırım, 2011-2012 Öğretim Yılında Uygulanan Din Kültürü ve Ahlak Bilgisi Dersi Programına İlişkin bir Değerlendirme; http://inancozgurlugugirisimi.org/basindan/erg-dkab-2011-2012-program-d…

7 At the present, students take obligatory religion classes, two hours weekly at junior high and one hour weekly at high school, and have electives such as Quran, the life of Mohammad, Basic Religious Culture.

8 For further information, see the following report by ÇOÇA and ERI Türkiye’de Okullarda Çocuk Katılımı: Durum Analizi, pp. 77-81; 0 https://www.dropbox.com/s/xs6updk3ahtgtr5/DOD_DAR_kitap_baski.pdf?dl=0

9 For instance, at the budget discussions for 2014 at the parliament in December 2013, it was indicated that 66 girls' Imam-Hatip schools were opened from 2012 onwards. For further detail see http://sgb.meb.gov.tr/meb_iys_dosyalar/2013_12/25103155_butce_sunusu_20…

10 Data taken from the following publications by the Ministry of National Education: Milli Eğitim İstatistikleri, Örgün Eğitim 2010-2011 and Milli Eğitim İstatistikleri, Örgün Eğitim 2013-2014.

11 For the ratios see Eğitim İzleme Raporu 2013, p. 83;


12 According to a report by Koç University Social Policy Center, in the 2010-2011 academic year, 36.3% of students in girls technical and vocational schools specialized in Children's Development and Training, 13.3% in IT, 12% in Garment Manufacturing Technology, 11.7% Food and Beverage Services. For the other fields on offer and the ratio of students, see.


13 Ibid.

14 Ibid, p. 23.