Turkey: Unequal Opportunities

unequal opportunitiesISTANBUL | In today’s Turkey, if you are a young girl from a poor family with many children, and your parents have only attended primary school, there’s only about a 1 or 2 percent chance that you will receive a university education. And, while 28 percent of the richest segment of the population between the ages of seven and 23 continues on to higher education, the percentage for the same age group from the poorest part of society is only 0.4 percent.

This disturbing data appeared in a report published in 2009 by Sabanci University’s Education Reform Initiative, reinforcing the notion that only the wealthiest part of Turkey’s population can currently access quality education. The report’s other main conclusions were similarly depressing, pointing to severe problems with the educational system, including high dropout rates, gender inequality, and overall underperformance among Turkish pupils. Combined with a lack of adequate teacher training, low wages, and classroom overcrowding, the picture is grim.

The dropout rate from primary education remains a huge problem, especially when analyzed according to gender. A total of 15 percent of young people between the ages of 15 and 19 do not have a primary school diploma, with around 70 percent of that group comprised of girls. Although school attendance is compulsory, that goal is still illusory. For example, in the case of a girl living in the rural areas of southeast Anatolia, there is only around a 50 percent chance that she will attend school. The report estimated that 700,000 girls currently do not receive a primary education in Turkey.

Those figures show no sign of improving, as the total number of girls and young women excluded from the education system exceeds millions and keeps growing, for a variety of reasons. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute nearly 18 percent of the population live in poverty (unofficial estimates talk of 28 percent), and many families have a large number of children to support. As a result, fathers are reluctant to let their daughters attend school instead of helping to support the household. In some families, especially in the eastern region of the country, parents feel there is no need to send girls to school.  They must do housework, look after their little brothers and sisters, and then get married.

Action Plan

This situation has prompted the Ministry of Education and education-related NGOs to mount campaigns to improve the numbers. “Let’s Go to School, Girls,” is the largest one of these campaigns, aimed to convince families to send their daughters to school. Jointly run by UNICEF and the ministry, the program includes financial support for low-income families. The private sector also contributes generously to similar campaigns (such as “Mother and Daughter to School” and “Father Send Me to School”), and some have been quite successful in providing scholarships and constructing new schools, classrooms, and dormitories.

In nearly every public speech, Minister of Education Nimet Cubukcu mentions improving girls’ attendance rates as one of her three main priorities. The others are raising the ratio of those who receive a pre-school education (enrollment is currently only around 33 percent), and the education of people with disabilities. Many disabled children and young people are being left behind. Widely quoted figures speak of only around 40 percent finishing primary school, and just around 2 percent continuing on to finish university. A total of 36 percent of disabled people are illiterate.

Setting back efforts to increase attendance, a lack of housing remains a serious problem for children who need to leave home to attend school because of the lack of educational facilities nearby.

One project, however, generates some hope for the future. A student hostel established in Bursa, a big industrial city in western Turkey, provides a home for smart, but poor girls from the countryside, allowing them to attend secondary school in Bursa. Built by a non-profit organization called “Contemporary Education Cooperative,” the hostel works on a “cooperative” basis whereby members (currently more than 1,500) make different contributions toward the shared goal of supporting the girls in their quest to continue their education. Over 50 girls live in the hostel.

“I miss my family very much but I am very happy to be here because I know that I will have a career in the future,” said 14-year-old Busra Sarac. “If I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be able to go to secondary school. There isn’t a secondary school in my village and my parents have no money to move to town.” Many of the girls living in the hostel have similar backgrounds and stories.

The director of the cooperative, Mumin Ceyhan, is determined to build a bigger student hostel with capacity for 300 girls. ‘‘They [the girls] are very successful. Last year [2009], 19 girls took the university entrance examination and 16 of them were registered at a university,” said Ceyhan. Supporters of the cooperative hope that the hostel can serve as a model how to provide many more children with educational opportunities.

Under Pressure

The central role of exams in the Turkish education system, and the accompanying pressure on students and their parents, continues to be a controversial issue. During the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades of their primary education, students take examinations to enroll in a “good” secondary school. For example, many students and their parents dream of their attending Robert College, a highly-respected school located in Istanbul. Not only are students required to answer all the questions correctly in those three exams each year to quality for registration, but they must also have the best marks for each subject at school. Students usually start preparations well before by attending private courses and/or hiring tutors for each subject. “The education system in Turkey is exam-based,” says Zubeyde Kılıc, the leader of the Trade Union of Education (Egitim-Sen). “Students, beginning from the very first year of their education, are faced with exam stress and have to compete with each other mercilessly. The time has come to put an end to this continuously increasing exam persecution.”

All that competition, however, hasn’t led to very good results, at least as judged by international indicators. Evaluations such as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) clearly state that Turkish students fall significantly behind their peers elsewhere, especially in science and mathematics. Experts say that many schools are not equipped to deal with those who have only basic skills and competencies. According to the Education Reform Initiative report, a full 32 percent of 15-year-old students cannot understand what they read, and 52 percent are unable to solve elementary math problems.

In an effort to improve those results, the Ministry of Education has launched some reforms in recent years aimed at improving the curriculum through, for example, a new program that emphasizes research over writ memorization. Some textbooks have also been overhauled, making them more attractive for children and also removing sexist elements.

Education-oriented NGOs are also doing their part to increase both the quality of education and the number of children with access to education. In 2008, a declaration prepared and signed by 14 NGOs and four academics called on the government to improve access to education. “It is an inalienable duty of a democratic, secular, and social state governed by rule of law to make sure that all children, girls and boys, complete primary education of high quality,” read the statement. “NGOs, international organizations, and professional organizations’ responsibilities on this matter comprise supporting public efforts and monitoring public officials’ performance through pressure groups. However, these responsibilities do not substitute for this fundamental duty of the state”

The group made specific demands, including infrastructural improvements at all schools to increase safety and comfort, for girls in particular; setting minimum standards at boarding schools for primary-age students; and the provision of hot meals for every student in all schools.

Short on Motivation

But the number of school-age children remains a challenge, as approximately 13 million students currently study in primary and secondary education.  This makes the shift toward a more student-centered approach, with individual attention, nearly impossible in the country’s overcrowded classrooms.

A corps of talented teachers might be able to deal with some of these challenges, but Turkey remains short on motivated educators skilled in the newest teaching methods. Part of the problem is low wages and inadequate on-the-job training, but, faced with high unemployment, many people chose the profession even though they realize almost from the beginning that the current system won’t live up to their expectations.

“Of course, it is good to have ‘good’ student books and accompanying teacher’s manuals,” said Ipek Gurkaynak, the co-director of the Gurkaynak Institute for Citizenship, which organizes training programs on various topics. “But the make-or-break point is the teachers: their training, their attitudes, their motivation, their willingness, their respect for their profession, and respect for their students.”

Based on his extensive experience in training teachers in human rights education and critical thinking skills, Gurkaynak says that teachers need to be empowered both in teacher preparation schools and with on-the-job training, a clear deficiency in the current system.

But it’s also up to schools to change the entire working environment, Gurkaynak said.

“Schools, too, will have to change in some very basic ways,” he says. “The whole school approach will have to address all the possible relationships in the school, the values, the rules, the regulations, the complete learning environment with its physical and psychological aspects, and the school ethos.”


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