Constructing a "New Turkey" through Education

An Overview of the Education Policies in Turkey under the AKP Rule

Since 2002, Turkey has been ruled by successive Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) governments which have increasingly shaped the education system in line with a neoliberal policy program and a conservative religious ideology. This short article aims to explore the educational policies of this period. However, in order to understand the form and content education is taking today, it is essential to look at the roots of today's education policies and how education has become a political tool to transform society at the hand of the various governments since the beginning of the Republic though with different agendas.   

Education has been an essential element and one of the major means of the modernisation project since the late Ottoman era. For Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his successors education had three important roles to fulfil, namely realisation of the modernisation project, formation of the nation-state and achievement of the economic development. Secular education was fundamental to the creation of the Turkish Republic and the "new citizen" who was modern, embraced the Western way of life and Turkish. The Law of Unification of Instruction (Tevhid-i Tedrisat Kanunu) passed in 1924 abolished all religious instruction in state schools and placed education under State control through the Ministry of National Education. This constituent regulation aimed to put an end to the dual structure of education that comprised of secular and religious educational institutions. It was followed by significant reforms such as the introduction of coeducation and the Latin alphabet. During the 1930s and 1940s, education expanded at all levels in the society, especially in rural areas and significant developments took place in terms of secularisation of education.[1] The experience of the Village Institutes, though short lived, were an important example of the utilization of education for social change in this period.

The process of the secular unification of education was interrupted when the conservative Democratic Party came to power in 1950. Under their rule, the education system was influenced by a resurgence of Islam which had significant implications for the education system since. It might be said that since the 1950s, there has been a gradual reversal of the secular educational reforms introduced by the early Republican governments. This found its expression in the re-opening and the increase in the number of Imam Hatip Schools[2] (Imam and Preacher Schools). Moreover, these schools were opened to girls (who could not become imams), and according to Okçabol (2005:71), this development implied a new quality by challenging the very foundation of the secular education system – particularly its unity - since the Imam Hatip Schools ‘developed into an alternative to the secular education system.’ In other words, a dual structured (secular and religious) education system resurfaced. İnal (2008:70-71) states that "these schools were regarded by the Kemalists as the backyard of Islamic ideology and circles" in which pupils from rural areas "were raised as the enemies of secularism." In contrast, "Islamic segment of the populations (…) claimed that these schools offered opportunities for the rural poor of Anatolia: high quality education, the raising of honourable and morally principled people, the fact that conservative families could easily educate their daughters."  Since the 1950s, education has become the scene of hegemonic struggles between the forces representing these two sides. Besides more and more Koran courses beyond state control were established and religious courses became an optional subject in primary and secondary education during this period.

Between 1950 and 1980, education was not viewed in an overall and long-term perspective and short-term political considerations played an important role in development and distribution of educational services which led to various imbalances in the education system (Kaya, 1985:147). It might be said that populist and short-sighted policy making has been dominant in relation to education in Turkey since then. The frequent, haphazard and top-down changes made to the education system reinforce this impression and create distrust amongst students, parents and policy experts especially today.

The 1950-1980 period was also marked by educational inequalities which affected the poor, people living in less developed regions, those living in rural areas and women and girls despite the quantitative improvements in education system. Even though the right to education was fully recognized in the 1961 Constitution, the substantial enjoyment of this right was restricted because of the educational inequalities which were the main obstacles for the realisation of the right to education during this period.      

         12 September 1980 military coup is generally considered to be the beginning of the neoliberal[3] era in Turkey's history. In addition to the introduction of the neoliberal policies mandated by the IMF's Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), a new official ideology - the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis (which combined Turkish nationalism and Islam with changing emphasis on either side according to the needs of the governments) - put into practice while shaping educational policies. Thus, the post-1980 era saw a major shift in the State’s approach to education. Neoliberal SAPs focused on reducing state spending and encouraged privatisation of public services. According to Günlü (2002:226), in the1980’s the public services provided by the State were not sufficient for the needs of the society but the communitarian core of the new official ideology together with liberal individualism legitimized the withdrawal of the State from the provision of public services. The Kemalist notion which treated education as a tool of development, modernisation, and secularisation and advocated that education should be supported and controlled by the State, has been gradually undermined (Gök and Ilgaz, 2007:132). After the 1980 military coup, Article 24 of the Constitution of 1982 defined a new course titled 'Religious Culture and Moral Knowledge' teaching mainly Sunni Islam, to be a mandatory course in primary and secondary levels of education (Kaymakcan, 1996: 91-107).

Education was one of the deeply effected public services by the restructuring of public expenditure. As a result of the adoption of neoliberal social and economic policies there was a general decline in the budgetary allocation for education. The budgetary decline took place alongside the increase in the number of students and schools, which meant that the state has been spending less on each school and student since 1970s. From the 1990s onwards, different forms of privatisation in education increased. One form of privatisation has been demanding financial contributions from parents for the purchases of educational materials, cleaning and heating of the schools, etc. Another form is the privatisation of education itself, i.e. increasing participation of private sector actors in education, such as for-profit private schools and preparatory schools (dershane)[4]. This was also a period of a rapid expansion in the number of Imam Hatip Schools. These two trends, i.e. privatisation and domination of conservative religious ideology in education have been reinforcing each other. On the one hand, the social groups who have higher purchasing power and unhappy with the increasingly religious overtones of the education in public schools are able to choose to ‘exit’ from the public sector to the private and, by doing so, consolidating an educational environment of their own. So secular education becomes a commodity in itself for the children of the well-off and the poor families are forced to send their children to multiplying Imam Hatip Schools in their neighbourhoods (Lüküslü, 2016). On the other hand, privatisation is seen as an entrance for Islamic tendencies, which have been trying to gain ground in the education system for many years by allowing different Islamic communities (cemaat) or the Islamist educational foundations to open their own schools and become more involved in education in different ways, such as through opening dormitories and by giving scholarships especially to students from poor families and rural areas (Kandiyoti and Emanet, 2017).

At the 1995 parliamentary elections the Welfare Party became the strongest party by gaining 21% of the votes. On 28 February 1997, the military forced the civilian government to adopt a package of measures that was directed against the ascendance of political Islam. These included the introduction of an eight-year compulsory schooling system and the elimination of the lower secondary school system for Imam Hatip Schools. As a result, the number of these schools and students attending them reduced considerably (Nohl, 2008).  

The AKP period starting from 2002 has been characterised by constant changes made in all aspects of education system which has been transformed both structurally and ideologically. Education policies under the AKP rule have been shaped by an amalgamation of neoliberalism, conservatism and Islamism. As a result, the education system has changed fundamentally especially during the last six years. These changes have had major implications for all sections of society. It is argued that the AKP’s education reforms aim the gradual ‘Islamisation of Turkey’ (Kaya 2015; Türkmen 2009) through constructing a new national identity and creating 'pious generations'. The advancing of conservative religious ideology started in the 1950s and accelerated since 2002 has been designed to remove the Kemalist and secular foundations of the education system and to replace it with a new founding ideology.     

With regard to educational policies, two phases can be identified under the AKP rule. While the first phase between 2002 and 2011 characterized by the introduction of neoliberal policies shows continuities with the previous educational policies and their underlying principles; the second phase of the last seven years has brought about a more comprehensive amendments that influence all structures of education during which overwhelmingly religious and conservative policies have been introduced (Durakbaşa and Karapehlivan, 2018). These changes in the educational system include: the revision of primary school curriculum and textbooks in 2004; devolving financial and governance responsibilities to schools through the adoption of School-Based Management; implementation of free textbooks program; introduction of monitoring processes (regular tests); introduction of Total Quality Management and performance assessment of teachers; changing the primary and secondary school structure from a 5+3+3 system to a 4+4+4 system and so extending compulsory education to 12 years in theory in 2012; abolishing of laws restricting religious education; the addition of religion-based optional courses at the secondary level in 2012; lifting the ban on headscarves first at universities and then allowing headscarves in all schools starting with the fifth grade in 2014; the introduction of voucher schemes in order to support private education sector financially; and, the second and more extensive revision of curriculum and textbooks in 2017-2018. These transformations in education system are indications of two aspects of the social policy regime of the AKP. On the one hand, the education system was left to the control of neoliberal policies. On the other hand, the party integrated its conservative religious ideology into the system (İnal, 2012).  

The AKP described itself as "conservative democrat" and was presented as a moderate Islamic political organisation when it came to power in 2002. The first term of the AKP rule (2002 and 2007) was characterized by implementing educational reforms in accordance with the EU standards and neoliberal policies (Kandiyoti and Emanet, 2017). Thus, the first major reform of this period was the revision of primary school curriculum and textbooks in 2004. The new curriculum introduced considerable changes in the curriculum content, pedagogical approach, and assessment system. It reorganized primary school education according to the constructivist and student-centred educational models, and adapted a competency-based curriculum approach. The findings of a study analysing the revised textbooks demonstrated that the curriculum reform also introduced neoliberal discourse and neoliberal model of citizen into the educational system of Turkey (Koşar-Altınyelken and Akkaymak, 2012).  

Meanwhile, efforts at increasing religious overtones in education and de-secularisation by marginalizing secularist Kemalist symbols and pedagogy were evident in various modifications to the school calendar with the introduction of Islamic celebrations such as Holy Birth Week[5] and banning republican celebrations such as 19th May Youth and Sports Day, encouragement of sex segregation even in co-education contexts. These changes were enacted through a series of administrative directives, regulations, decrees, and laws (Kandiyoti and Emanet, 2017).

Moreover, during this period deregulation and privatisation opened up new spaces and points of entry to the field of education for Islamic communities (Kandiyoti and Emanet, 2017). For instance, the publication of free textbooks financed by the Ministry of Education and other cultural materials provided opportunities for substantial profits for Islamic publishing houses and children’s media outlets. Thus, as Kandiyoti and Emanet (2017) argue "the consolidation of Islamic content in pedagogy went hand in hand with the process of neoliberal deregulation and privatisation."

The most significant of these changes was the introduction of what is commonly called the 4+4+4 system in education in 2012. With this new system, the compulsory primary schooling system was changed from a continuous Eight-Year system to an intermittent 4+4+4 system (4 years primary, 4 years lower secondary and 4 years upper secondary school compulsory education); and secondary schooling became compulsory with a distance education option. With this reform, lower secondary school sections (grades 6-8; ages 12-14) of Imam Hatip schools that were closed in 1997 along with other vocational lower secondary schools (because of the change into a continuous Eight-Year primary education) were re-opened (grades 5-8 today) (Durakbaşa and Karapehlivan, 2018). Following this change there was a rapid increase in the number of Imam Hatip Schools. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of Imam Hatip Lycees (upper secondary level) increased from 537 to 1,485 and the number of students attending those schools went up from 268,245 to 503,978. In 2016-2017 the total number of students in the lower and upper level of Imam Hatip schools increased to 1,291,426. This number was 71,100 in 2002 when the AKP came to power (Eğitim-Sen Report, 2017-2018:4). Moreover, the statistics of the Ministry of National Education of the last two years show that there are more girls (56%) attending religious upper secondary level of Imam Hatip Schools than boys (44%). According to a Reuters' report (2018) "government budget and investment plans shows that spending on Imam Hatip upper schools for boys and girls aged 14 to 18 will double to 6.57 billion lira ($1.68 billion) in 2018 - nearly a quarter of the total upper schools budget. Although the 645,000 Imam Hatip students make up only 11 percent of the total upper school population, they receive 23 percent of funding - double of what spend per pupil at mainstream schools."

In addition to the government’s promotion of these schools, enrolments at Imam Hatip Schools also increased due to automatic placement of thousands of students to these schools. Another factor that prompted this increase is the lack of secular schools in certain neighbourhoods. When families cannot find a secular public school to send their children to, their only choice is to send them to private schools if they can afford it.[6] Or as I mentioned before mainly families with limited income will be obliged to send their children to these religious schools despite their declared will (ERG, 2014) .

Moreover, in 2012, two optional courses for years 6 to 8, Civic Education and Agriculture, were removed from the curriculum while three religion-based courses were introduced: Quran (Kuran-ı Kerim), Life of Prophet Muhammad (Hz. Muhammed'in Hayatı), and Basic Religious Knowledge (Temel Dini Bilgiler). However, even though in theory these new courses were elective, some had to sign up for one or more of these courses due to unavailability of non-religious course alternatives (Gürcan, 2015). Thus, the education system gained more religious properties by the addition of new optional religious courses in secular schools and by reopening lower levels of Imam Hatip Schools after the introduction of the 4+4+4 system in 2012. Türkmen (2009) examines the changes made in the curriculum of the courses on Religious Culture and Moral Knowledge between 1995 and 2007–08 and concludes that the new content of these courses is designed to re-Islamise Turkish society in a neoliberal fashion. The inclusion of the 8th grade religious education subjects in nationwide “Transition from Primary to Secondary Education Exam” (Temel Eğitimden Ortaöğretime Geçiş, TEOG) was another practice that was also introduced in the 2012-2013 academic year (Gürcan, 2015). While in theory religious education claims to be objective and unbiased and to give a general knowledge about all religions and moral systems, in practice it becomes a teaching of Sunni Islam as the content of the curriculum and the text books includes information predominantly about the Sunni interpretations of Islam with little references to other world religions (ERG, 2017b). Thus, this framing of religious education generates discrimination against students from non-Muslim and non-Sunni minority groups as the Religious Culture and Moral Knowledge courses are compulsory for all students except those belonging to the non-Muslim minorities identified in the Lausanne Treaty despite the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights convicting Turkey for the violation of the right to religious education (Gürcan, 2015). As Gürcan (2015:1) indicates "[t]he students who are forced to take the courses by law, such as the Alevis, face a new exclusionary practice as getting into prestigious high schools becomes harder without correctly answering the questions of a subject matter they consider discriminatory and assimilative in the first place. The students who are exempted from the courses also face a problem as there are no alternative non-RE questions in the test."    

The military coup attempt of 15 July 2016 was followed by a period of State of Emergency which lasted from 21 July 2016 until 18 July 2018. During this period the education system went through another major change. On 13 January 2017 the Ministry of National Education announced a new draft curriculum presenting 51 courses at the primary, lower secondary, and secondary school levels. This extensive  curriculum change was first implemented at 1st, 5th and 9th grades during 2017-2018 school year as a pilot and it was applied to all grades (grades 1-12) starting from 2018-2019 school year[7].

The changes to curriculum have included removing important historical events and founders of the republic (e.g. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and İsmet İnönü) and replacing them with Islamized ones, promoting Muslim scientists, and increasing the religious content in the curriculum. The number of hours for philosophy were lessened, whereas the political science hours remained intact. Hours for biology were also reduced, from three to two, while hours for Religious Culture and Moral Knowledge courses were increased from one to two.  Even more significantly, the only chapter on evolution in the pre-college curriculum ‘The Beginning of Life and Evolution’ was cut out from high school textbooks and all references to Darwinian or ‘neo-Darwinian’ theory removed. Proponents of the change argued that “students don’t have the necessary scientific background and information-based context needed to comprehend” the evolution debate. The 2017 curriculum which was passed under the state of emergency conditions, has been criticised by scholars, secular groups, education rights groups and women’s groups for its Islamic character, and lack of respect for religious differences and gender equality[8] (for a review of the draft curriculum see ERG, 2017a; for a review of the draft religious culture and moral knowledge courses see ERG, 2017b). Kandiyoti and Emanet (2017) argue that "the compulsory school curriculum gives the clearest indication that the new pedagogy is not about entertaining different possible interpretations of natural phenomena or, indeed, historical ones, nor learning to think critically about them. Rather, it points to undisguised efforts at indoctrination into a new official ideology which, ironically, is the very accusation the AKP had levelled against their Kemalist predecessors when they embarked on their own educational reforms since 2002."

Moreover, the new curriculum introduced ‘15 July victory of democracy’ as a new subject at different grades. It seems that the coup attempt provided "‘the foundational event’ of the New Turkey" (Kandiyoti and Emanet, 2017) and marks "a new phase in the imposition of a new form of Turkishness, an Islamized version of national identity, and the creation of a pious generation, which have constituted one of the key strategic projects of the AKP since the party’s third term in power since 2011" (Lüküslü, 2016).

 "Values education" is another important item in the new curriculum intended to strengthen national values and Islamic morality. "Values education" relies on the notions of “national unity and solidarity” as well as “national, moral and universal values” (ERG, 2017a) According to its creators, values education will have a cultural impact and will help inscribe these values into daily behaviour of people in the future. In the current educational policy agenda of AKP, values education means more religious and conservative content of the curriculum based on a single vein of interpretation of Sunni Islamic teaching (Durakbaşa and Karapehlivan, 2018).

These radical changes in education system with Islamic overtones have had important implications for women's education in particular and gender equality in general. Moreover, other groups, such as Kurds, Alevis, and non-Muslims, have been discriminated against in this system, through compulsory religious education (Gürcan, 2015), textbooks, extracurricular activities, or other avenues (ERG, 2017a).

According to Education at A Glance 2018 (OECD, 2018) Turkey's annual expenditure per student from primary to tertiary level is one of the lowest among OECD and partner countries with available data (4652 USD Equivalent, rank 32/35 , 2015); a large share of young adults still have below upper secondary education in Turkey: 44% of 25-34 year-olds, compared to 15% on average across OECD countries and women are less likely than men to attain upper secondary education; participation rate in early childhood education and care is still low, partly due to low funding allocated at this level. Despite its profound problems, education system in Turkey is characterized by dual impacts of neoliberal policies and conservative religious ideology. While neoliberal policies have led to serious inequalities in access to quality education for the majority of the population, dominant religious ideology has diminished critical thinking at schools. The negative impacts of these two policy shaping factors have been reflected in Turkey's PISA results. 31.2 % of Turkish students below 15 years of age underperformed in mathematics, sciences and reading in 2015 PISA test and Turkey dropped from 44th spot to the 49th compared to the last test in 2012.



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[1] The French model of state schooling (5+3 system) was adopted at the beginning of the Republic. This model provided for primary schools, teaching a five-year curriculum, after which children could either cease their schooling, or proceed to middle schools and, eventually, to high schools and universities. Technical and vocational schools were also provided at each of the three higher levels, for graduates of schools at the previous stage (Başaran, 1996: 64).


[2] These were public schools to train future imams and preachers who would become staff members of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı). These schools were first opened under the Law of Unification of Instruction by converting old Madrasas. In 1930, they were closed down and then reopened in 1950. At the time Imam Hatip graduates were only permitted to continue their higher education in theology faculties. In 1970, the number of Imam Hatip schools reached to 72 and the number of students attending these schools were 48,900 in 1974 and 309,553 in 1991. Their graduates were allowed to enrol in different departments. Thus, 40 percent of their graduates enrolled in a political-science faculty in 1987. The only educational institutions that did not accept Imam Hatip School graduates were the military schools. By 2003 almost half of their students were female (Kaya, 2015; Eligür, 2010).  

[3] Neoliberalism is, as Harvey (2005:2) defines, "in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices." The main propositions of neoliberal theory might be summarized as follows: markets are the best way to provide equilibrium, efficiency and equity; the role of government should be significantly reduced and should stay at the minimum; all alternatives to markets are profoundly faulty; government failure is more prevalent than market failure; and government intervention with the aim of redistribution is unjust and results in coercion, i.e. with violation of freedom (Karapehlivan Şenel, 2010: 29; for a comprehensive examination of the concept of neoliberalism see Thorsen and Lie, 2006). In relation to education, neoliberal policies might imply decreasing state role and increasing role of private sector in the provision of education services, both direct and indirect privatisation of education services such as introducing official and unofficial fees, contracting out of teaching and other services, reducing public expenditure on education, etc. in different contexts.

[4] As school leaving certificates ceased to entitle their bearer to entrance to the next higher school, with candidates instead having to complete extensive texts, preparatory schools had to be attended in addition to regular lessons to study for these tests.


[5] The celebration of the birth of the prophet Muhammed, scheduled on 24 April, overshadowed the republican celebration of 23 April Children’s Day which marked the establishment of the first republican parliament.

[7] The curriculum change was criticized for being top-down, for not being implemented in a transparent process, for being scientifically and pedagogically weak and for not being clear about how it will be put into practice by various stakeholders like Education Reform Initiative (2017a) and Eğitim-Sen (2017).

[8] In an interview on the new curriculum Education Reform Initiative's head Batuhan Aydagül (2017) said that "[t]here is more influence of religion. This is visible in textbooks included in the curriculum. Does this amount to Islamisation? I would need more evidence to say that. Is the curriculum getting more conservative? No doubt. But the most critical thing is that the emphasis of the curriculum has moved away from foundational skills like critical and analytical thinking in favor of values-based education. The latter is important to the government but the 21st century requires foundational skills."