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Turkey: standing up for democratic, public education

published 19 December 2016 updated 19 December 2016

By Howard Stevenson, University of Nottingham

Long before the recent coup attempt in Turkey democratic secular and public education in the country was under attack, but since the coup the situation has deteriorated rapidly.

For some time the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been challenging the secularism that is one of the foundation principles of modern Turkey. In order to further consolidate his power base Erdogan has long been promoting a form of Islamification within the country, and education reform has been central to this project.

In 2012 the government introduced the most significant education reform in many years – the policy of ‘4+4+4’ or ‘4+’.  This policy extended the years of compulsory schooling from 8 to 12, and was presented as progressive and positive. However, the policy also sought to expand religious education by increasing the number of imam-hatip schools, which originally trained religious preachers (hence the schools are considered vocational) but which can now be considered as generic religious schools. Before 4+ students would only attend these schools after the 8 years of compulsory schooling. The 4+ reforms re-established imam-hatip schools in the middle school years and students can opt into them from the age of 9. Since the introduction of the ‘4+’ policy there has been a huge growth in imam-hatip schools, in both the lower and upper secondary sectors.

This is a major threat to Turkey’s secular tradition, and has been challenged consistently by those who seek to uphold this commitment.  The main teachers’ union, Egitim-Sen, has a proud history of promoting secular education, and has been highly critical of the so-called ‘reforms’.  However, the government refused to engage with the union when the policy was being debated. Rather it promoted its own teachers’ organisation, which inevitably, is supportive of the reforms. This form of patronage and favouritism is central to the government’s grip on power. In Turkey today it is virtually impossible to become a school principal unless one is a member of the government favoured union. This patronage extends into virtually every aspect of the school system.

Long before the coup education in Turkey was being used to promote an ideological project, with the independence of educators (in schools and universities) consistently under attack.

Since the coup, the situation has worsened dramatically. On the day students returned from the school holidays they were given a lesson about the coup. Schools were supplied with booklets and a documentary explaining the coup, and some schools involved students in re-enacting the coup. Education is once again being used as a powerful ideological tool to promote government messages.  However, although much of the government’s rhetoric has focused on the alleged coup plotters, in reality the coup has provided the government with a cover to attack all those who oppose its policies, and many of whom work as teachers and university academics.

Progressive forces in Turkey immediately condemned the coup, but many find themselves victims as the post-coup purge extends far beyond the Gulenist movement blamed for the uprising.  This has been made possible by a draconian State of Emergency which means that people can be sacked without any explanation given, or any right of appeal.  In education this fate has befallen tens of thousands of teachers.

Egitim-Sen, which has consistently promoted democratic, public and secular education in Turkey is under attack as part of the post-coup purge. Thousands of its members have been suspended without pay, and nearly 1000 have been dismissed, with no prospect of ever working as a teacher again.

Some believe that the future of the union is at stake. That the government may at some point ban it, or it will try to starve it into submission as the union devotes scarce resources to supporting its members who now have no other income.

Education International has issued an urgent call for support, including a request for solidarity donations. Details are here 

In Turkey the most basic principles of democratic education are under threat. The government is trying to close down the space for independent and critical thought.  It is trying to achieve its goals by creating a climate of fear where teachers are afraid to say what they think and stand up for what they believe in. In an increasingly dangerous world, developments in Turkey must be a warning to us all.  It is why we all have a responsibility to stand with those in the front line of these attacks.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.