Secular public education under threat in Turkey

Turkey witnessed an extraordinary event last June at the end of the school year: The students of İstanbul Lisesi (Istanbul High School) turned their backs to the school principal while he was holding a ceremonial speech on the schoolyard. They were protesting the authoritarian way the school was administered, and were refusing to be affiliated with any political group. This protest has triggered a wave of protests in several other public high schools with similar statements of dissent.

These reactions were actually signalling a new turn in the approach of the government to these elite—though their students being from different parts of the country and from a wide range of income groups—schools which had their own communities and history, and the highest profile of success in the country. Some of them stand out with the international success of their students, such as the students of İstanbul Lisesi, a 132 year old high school supported by the German state, scoring top in German Abitur exams.

The policy change began with a new law defining a group of high performance high schools as “project schools.” Their principals, who until that time were elected after an examination process, would from now on be directly appointed by the Minister of Education, and were given free hand in comparison to their predecessors in choosing the teachers and ruling the schools. It was the first of these appointments of a principal that gave rise to the protests.

The tensions rose again when the Ministry decided to change the teachers in these “project schools” who had served for 8 years or more, as the first thing after the school year began in September. The minister justifies the policy with the aim of raising the success of both, the project schools and also the schools where the removed teachers were sent to.

The students, the parents and the graduate associations of these long-established schools criticize this policy in which they did not participate in and fear that the government sees these schools as the new fronts in expanding a conservative-religious hegemony.