Constant changes in Turkey's education system confounding all stakeholders

Constant changes in Turkey's education system confounding all stakeholders

Constant changes in Turkeys education system confounding all stakeholders

“The country is getting richer. Then you should expect to see an increase of quality and a diminishing of inequalities, but we do not see that.” says Işıl Oral of the AKP’s 10 year legacy on the education system. DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜREL

As the new school year starts today, students, families and teachers have again found themselves obliged to adapt to yet another change as the Education Ministry has introduced a new exam system, just few days before classes begin.

The exam system has changed six times since 2003, said Işıl Oral, a policy analyst at Sabancı University’s Education Reform Initiative (ERI), a think tank that focuses exclusively on education policy in Turkey.

“There are too many changes and everyone gets confused. It looks like a trial-and-error policy. You can’t try something for a year and then change it, saying it’s not working,” she recently told the Hürriyet Daily News. 

What is the most acute problem in the education system?

Inequality and a lack of quality are the biggest problems. This does not mean that nothing good is being done. A lot is being down in providing access to education. We have made lots of progress in terms of net schooling rates. But the attention that is being placed to increase schooling rates is not being paid to increase quality in schools. Policies on teachers are one of the priorities we need to look into to increase the quality. 

How do teachers get educated? What do they do when they enter the school system? Unfortunately, not only are education faculty programs not competitive, but the quality of education seems to not be great. But we are not putting the blame on teachers; this is a systemic problem. The teaching profession in term of prestige is not doing well in Turkey.
Why are exams such an important issue in Turkey?

We always underline that education policy should be designed to benefit the student. But we pay a lot of attention to exams, transition systems between primary and secondary [school] and from high school to university. Having exams are not necessarily a bad thing, as you have to measure student performance. But in Turkey we do it to place students in schools.

So exams become a race for students to enter better schools.

Exactly. It is based on a simple equation between supply and demand. This is really not healthy. Lots of people are trying to go to a very small number of good schools.

That must be the reason behind inequalities. Why is school A in a city better than school B in the same city? Aren’t they getting the same budget allocation from the ministry?

Public schools do on paper get the same amount of funds. But there is an informal financial structure, the parent-teacher association (PTA). This is a big factor in financing schools, especially in urban areas. The system assigns you to a school in your area. Some areas are inhabited by families that are better off. Those kids going to these schools are supported by parents who are in the PTA who help the school with financing. This means that kids coming from wealthier backgrounds are going to good schools.

They seem to change the exam system so frequently. How many times has it changed?

Since 2003, it has changed six times. Exam systems are a gateway to something everybody wants to be a part of. A lot of money is being paid for instance to private tutoring system called dersanes. The Education Ministry is always trying to do something about it because families, students and teachers are all concentrated on the exam issue. So the ministry keeps saying “we are trying to improve the exam system.” The ministry is therefore trying to reform the exam system since it’s an easier fix than doing long-term, quality-increasing solutions. This is understandable from the perspective of a politician but we have a serious problem here. Actually, there have been initiatives to improve the quality of education, but they are always being postponed because efforts to improve the exam system remain a priority.

It seems that the introduction of constant change is not just limited to the exam system but overall in everything related to education.

There are many, many changes; there are always new regulations. As a think tank which deals only with education, [even] we have a hard time following it.

This must be a serious problem as well.

Exactly. If you have a sustainable education policy, there is no need to make all these changes all the times. These changes are affecting kids. It looks like a trial-and-error policy. You can’t try something for a year and then change it, saying it isn’t working.
There have been too many changes, especially in the past five years. It is not a good influence on students, teachers, parents and school principals. Everybody is confused. We think these processes could be more inclusive. People can be informed in advance and not at the very last moment, just before the start of education year. There is too much change without a lot of justification.

The government is also criticized for trying to impose its conservative ideology on education.

Three elective courses related to religion were introduced last year. We already had mandatory religious courses, and three more courses were added as electives. We do not know how these elective courses are chosen; whether the child has a say in choosing them. 

With the latest new secondary school transition exam, one of the six main areas where there will be exams is in religion. This is problematic. What will happen to Alevis for instance? This does not bode well for the human rights aspect. You have the exam on religion, and we do not understand how it is relevant to measure the competency of children. 

How do you evaluate the Justice and Development Party (AKP) policies, which have shaped education policies for the past decade?

It’s not where they should be. Much more could be done. The argument is that the country is getting richer. Then you should expect to see an increase of quality and a diminishing of inequalities, but we do not see that. They put quantity before quality. To increase quality [requires more than a] band aid – you need to invest and have a sustainable system. You can’t constantly change. 

There is also the controversy with religious schools, the imam hatips.

With the newly introduced “4+4+4” [education system] the religious schools which were closed in 1997 were reopened. In terms of percentage of these schools to overall schools, it is very similar to when they were in 1997; close to 6.5 percent of middle schools are religious schools. In terms of the number of students that prefer to go to religious school, we see an increasing trend. Female students are usually the majority in religious schools at 52 percent.

What is your assessment about this trend?

It is difficult to assess if this is a supply and demand [issue] or just a step by the government. In terms of elective courses, children prefer religious courses which are in the top three. But it’s important to see how elective courses are offered; in some schools the principal says I don’t have a teacher for other elective courses but I have a religion teacher, so I open religious courses as electives. We don’t know whether it is yet causing alarm. We have to look at the data. But we are confused about the expectation from the students. The argument is values education. But what are you measuring on the test on religion? How is that going to play into what the student is going to do after graduation? This is not very clear.


Işıl Oral is a policy analyst at the Education Reform Initiative (ERI), a think tank working exclusively on education policy in Turkey. 

She studied social and political sciences at Sabancı University and holds a Master’s degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

Before joining ERI in 2012, she worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institute and as an analyst at the World Bank in Washington for four years. Her main areas of research are the economics of education and labor market policy. 

At ERI, she designs and conducts analyses on education policy issues, both independently and as part of a research team. Her main focus is on inequality in access to education services and the ways to improve the quality of education in Turkey, nationally and regionally.