Turkish pupils go to school under shadow of political row

Ankara: A radically changed curriculum. Teachers who vanished from one year to the next. And a greater emphasis on religion.

Turkish school children went back to their classes last month not just facing the daily pressures of learning but changes that have ignited a bitter political row.

Evolution theory was dropped from school textbooks, tens of thousands of teachers sacked in the crackdown that followed the 2016 failed coup and the Muslim concept of jihad introduced to some classes.

Secular unions and teachers worry education will be less scientific and more religious, but the government argues the changes are needed to prepare the new generation for the modern republic’s 100th year anniversary in 2023.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared at the start of the new school year his objective was to raise students “at peace with their national and spiritual values, patriotic, qualified, free”.

Burhanettin Uysal, deputy head of the parliamentary commission for education, said the reforms were to “simplify” the education programme.

“It would not have been possible to keep up with the world today with the curriculum from five, 10 years ago,” said Uysal, a ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lawmaker.

Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lawmaker Mithat Sancar hit back that the changes reflected the “religious and nationalist ideology of the AKP” that has “largely been incorporated into school textbooks”.

Just days before pupils were back at their desks in September, Erdogan called for the high school entrance school exam to be scrapped.

The government, which has yet to present the replacement, within weeks overhauled the university entrance exam after Erdogan hinted at further changes to it last month.

– Teachers sacked –
Over 33,000 teachers have been sacked in the purge that followed the failed coup, with critics arguing many were punished for leftist or pro-Kurdish sympathies rather than any link to the plot.

Feray Aytekin Aydogan, head of secular and opposition teachers’ union Egitim-Sen, said the dismissals led to “anxiety” among teachers currently working in schools.

“Our job security has been taken away from us,” she told AFP. “Who will fill those staff places?”

Betul Ozturk, a primary school teacher in Ankara, said teachers were “under siege” in schools from special interest groups, including religious organisations.

“Many students have been left without teachers, teachers left without work,” Ozturk said. “(Teachers) do their job with the fear of losing it at any moment.”

Latif Selvi, deputy head of the conservative union Egitim-Bir-Sen, Turkey’s biggest teachers’ union, said, however, there had been no “disruptive” impact to education. But he acknowledged Turkey needed to hire more teachers.

Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz has said he was addressing the gap with nearly 20,000 more teachers by 2018.

Kurdish provinces in the southeast have been “intensely” affected by the purges, HDP MP Sancar said. “Many experienced teachers have been sacked.”

– Jihad in, evolution out? –
The Islamic-rooted AKP government is often accused of working towards raising the “pious generation” spoken of by Erdogan in past speeches.

This summer, Yilmaz announced that children at religious schools which follow the national curriculum would be taught the concept of jihad.

A storm of controversy then raged after education ministry officials said they would also remove evolution theory because it was too complex for children under the age of 18.

Jihad is usually translated in the West as a religious war. But its meaning in Islam refers to one’s struggle, internal and otherwise.

Aydogan accused the government of hypocrisy by insisting on the nuanced concept of jihad while claiming evolution was too complicated for the young.

“You put in young children’s minds and schoolbooks this idea of war for religion, then you say this is a meaning of it, but there is also a second, a third meaning.

“(But) you say explaining evolution is too hard, ‘we’re taking it out, it can’t be explained’!” she said.

Ozturk said headteachers were speaking to teachers and telling them “your duty is to put the curriculum into practice, not to criticise it”.

– ‘New regime, new education’ –
Even before the current controversy, critics had accused the government of undermining the secular foundations of education in Turkey and paying less attention to the founder of the modern republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The last years have seen a boom in the growth of Imam Hatip schools which specialise in religious education combined with a modern curriculum. Erdogan himself went to such a school.

Under the AKP’s rule since 2002, the number of Imam Hatip students has risen from 23,000 to over 1.1 million at the start of the 2017 academic year.

Most Imam Hatip schools had been shut down after the 1997 ousting of the then Islamist government by the military.

But the AKP’s Uysal denied his party had a problem with Ataturk. “We continue to fight for our youth to understand Ataturk better,” he said.

Aydogan claimed “serious problems” in the education system began after 2012 changes that saw the Turkish parliament extend compulsory education for four years.

“They are trying to create a new Turkey, the construction of a new regime with a new education system,” she said.