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Parents, Students Worried About Turkey's Education System

FILE - A woman holds a placard demanding "a secular and science-based education system" as hundreds of students and teachers march in Ankara, Feb. 13, 2015.

Parents and students in Turkey have taken to the streets to show their alarm over the state of education in the country, and the direction the government has taken to reform it.

Generally, education has been viewed as a political football in the past decade under Turkey's Islamist-rooted government.

Observers say much of the problem lies in the legacy of military rule during the 1980s. Under the generals, thousands of teachers considered either having left-leaning or liberal sympathies were purged. A ruthless disciplinary system was installed that emphasized loyalty to the state over individual thought.

Last month some students boycotted classes in a nationwide protest of education policy. One female student, who asked not to be identified, said conditions are getting worse.

Complaining that the classrooms are tiny and that there are no libraries, or laboratories, she asked "How are we supposed to learn?" She added that the mentality of teaching and the schools are in the past.

Away from secularism

The government insists it is committed to education reform, and under the ruling AK Party the education budget has markedly increased. But critics claim education reform has been haphazard and is continually changing.

Criticism of the Islamist-rooted government has grown with its policy of more religion classes, and a massive program of converting secular schools into Islamic schools is underway, leading many parents to pull their children out of state schools. There has been a massive expansion of private education, which was unknown in Turkey until a few decades ago.

Private schools start at about $10,000 a year, more than Turkey's average income, but as one parent explained on conditions of anonymity, she feels she has little choice.

"You send your child to a state school, you do not know what the child is going to encounter there. We hear there is going to be more emphasis on religious education, and I believe there will be more strict implementation of such a thing, rather than private schools," she said. "And I don't believe their education policies will be scientific education, for children to feel free for free thinking, to have good self-confidence. I believe state schools have more of suppressing the children."

Economic downside

The business community and industry are also concerned about the state of education. Despite economic gains in the past decade, Finans Bank chief economist Inan Demir says Turkey has hit a ceiling, and education is partly to blame.

"Turkey’s labor force is not fully utilized right now. And even the utilized portion could be utilized even better. But that would require a different sort of labor force, a much better educated labor force. But Turkey has not done much on that front. So I would say getting to the next leg of rapid growth, Turkey most notably needs reforms on the education front," said Demir.

But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said education's priority should be to bring up a religious generation. Critics accuse the Islamist-rooted president of seeking social engineering to ensure a loyal electorate. But the price could be high, says Istanbul Technical University Professor Kerem Cankocak.

"The education system is getting worse and worse. When I was in high school, which was more than 30 years ago, we were learning evolution. Now today, none of the children is learning evolution in high school. You cannot teach genetics, you cannot teach biology without evolution, because there are no other laws. You cannot run a country without science," said Cankocak.

Education is expected to be a key issue in June’s election, but the ruling AK Party continues to be well ahead of a divided opposition.