PHOTO from Birgun
Fast approaching the anniversary of the Feb. 28 process, or the 1997 "postmodern coup" that brought about the fall of the Islamist Refah government and a slate of reforms to defend secularism against what was perceived by some as the encroaching threat posed by political Islam, the government has announced plans to restructure Turkish education.
Reforms include provisions that would allow school children to receive education at religious (imam-hatip) high schools after completing four years of primary education or pursue distance learning (essentially "home school") courses. At the moment, students are required to complete eight years of education before being allowed to complete the final four years at imam-hatip, which combine traditional and religious education. Under the new law, education would be structured into three four-year segments: four years primary (ilk), four years middle (orta), and four years high school (lise), and hence the 4+4+4. The government is arguing the new law is an improvement since all 12 years will be mandatory even if it is to be completed at home.
The problems with the law should be apparent, and late this week earned the denunciation of the Turkish Businessmen and Industrialists' Association (TUSIAD) and prominent opinion leader and entrepreneur Guler Sabanci. In rural areas, particularly in the east and southeast where children, particularly girls, already do not go to school, the law would greatly diminish educational standards. Parents in these areas are often not well-educated themselves (this is an understatement), and would not be capable of providing a quality education. Further, child labor is a tremendous problem (see past post) and girls are frequently kept at home (for more on this, see past post; see also the above advertisement from a 2010 campaign launched by Milliyet urging fathers to send their daughters to school).
The proposed law also allows for provision that would reduce the age of apprenticeship to 11, though it is still unclear to me as to how an apprenticeship works. (Is it pursued concurrent with other curriculum? Does it allow one to withdraw from school entirely? Would this possibly trigger more child labor?) The apprenticeship is also chief among TUSIAD's concerns (for more, click here).
On Wednesday, the parliament sub-commission for education took up the bill after a debate by a wider debate by a larger commission. Though the AKP has been sensitive to criticisms coming from groups such as TUSIAD and has expressed some willingness to compromise, it is unclear just how many of the proposed provisions could be made law. The sub-commission is scheduled to take the draft up once more on Feb. 28 after some tweaking from party officials. For an account in English, click here.
Cumhuriyet columnist Utku Cakirozer frames the recent move within the context of the Feb. 28 process. Cakirozer refers to measures put into play soon after the coup that required all students to attend eight years of primary education (from five to eight) before dropping out or enrolling in imam-hatip. The generals also restricted Koran courses. Students were not allowed to enroll in Koran courses until after their fifth year of school, and courses were subject to inspection by the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet. Penalties, including prison sentences for parents who did not send their children to schools or sent their children to Koran courses before they were old enough. In addition, operators of illegal Koran courses were also subject to penalties.
Gradually, the AKP government has whittled away at what some might read as particularly intrusive restrictions, particularly on religious education. In 2003, prison sentences were replaced with fines; in 2004, parliament reduced the sentence for running an illegal Koran course from three years to one and ended and authorities ceased closing down illegal courses; in 2005, the Diyanet ceased inspecting Koran courses; and after last June's elections, the minimum age for Koran courses was eliminated. According to Cakirozer, the goal is now to do away with the eight-year rule for uninterrupted education.
As it inevitably does, the headscarf also falls into the debate. As Cakirozer points out, young girls wearing the headscarf (as young as fifth grade) will now be allowed to do so at imam-hatip, effectively ending the ban. I care more about the fact that these children will simply not receive the same quality of education as I do about an effective end to the ban after that age (the ban was one of the reasons driving the government to do this to begin with), but it is important to note that is also important for many critics of the new law (for another example, see this coverage from Hurriyet).
Other columnists and opinion leaders see the law as a broad-based effort to increase the influence of Islamist education, particularly imam-hatip and Koran courses. For an example, see Egitim-Is head Veli Demir's comments in Melih Asik's column in Milliyet.
UPDATE I (2/27) -- Nicole Pope's column in Today's Zaman offers a solid English-language analysis summing up the threat the proposed law poses to Turkish education.