The decline of Turkish schools

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DAYS before the start of the new school year, Merve, an eighth-grade science teacher, is flipping through the pages of her old biology textbook. A picture of a giraffe appears, alongside a few lines about Charles Darwin. Teaching evolution in a predominantly Muslim country where six out of ten people refer to themselves as creationists, according to a 2010 study, has never been easy. As of today it is no longer possible. A new curriculum has scrapped all references to Darwin and evolution. Such subjects, the head of Turkey’s board of education said earlier this summer, were “beyond the comprehension” of young students. Merve says her hands are now tied. “There’s no way we can talk about evolution.”

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has made clear on more than one occasion that he would like to bring up a “pious generation” of young Turks. He has made plenty of headway. The education ministry, says Feray Aytekin Aydogan, the head of a leftist teachers’ union, is working more closely than ever with Islamic NGOs and with the directorate of religious affairs. Attendance at so-called imam hatip schools, used to train Muslim preachers, has shot up from about 60,000 in 2002 to over 1.1m, or about a tenth of all public-school students. The government recently reduced the minimum population requirement for areas where such schools are allowed to open from 50,000 to 5,000. An earlier reform lowered the age at which children can enter them from 14 to ten.

The new curriculum has left Turkish liberals and secularists aghast. From this year onwards, children as young as six will be taught the story of last summer’s abortive coup—presumably without including the mass purges and arrests that followed it. Imam hatip students, meanwhile, will study the concept of jihad. (The education ministry says the term, which can also refer to one’s personal struggle against sin, has been misused.) A module on the life of the Prophet Muhammad will teach the same pupils that Muslims should avoid marrying atheists, and that wives should obey their husbands. Schools are also becoming a target of Mr Erdogan’s mosque-building spree. A new rule requires that all new schools be equipped with prayer rooms, segregated by sex. “The interference of religion into education has never been as visible and as deep,” says Batuhan Aydagul of the Education Reform Initiative, a think-tank in Istanbul.

During its first decade in power, Mr Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) party indeed presided over vast improvements in the country’s education. As the economy boomed, millions of Turks lifted themselves out of poverty. Many more young Turks, especially girls, started going to school. Spending increased, and thousands of new schools opened. Yet progress has stalled since then. Student performance, as measured every three years by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), having improved until 2012, dipped in 2015. Turkish students scored second to last among all OECD countries that year. The previous curriculum placed a bigger emphasis on critical thinking. The new one has reverted to an emphasis on rote learning.

Turkish parents complain of incompetent teachers, too little emphasis on languages, and crowded classrooms. (The sacking of over 30,000 teachers suspected of dissident sympathies since the coup has not helped.) Many now resort to private schools. Devrim Ertekin, a drug company employee, recently enrolled his six-year-old son in a private pre-school in Istanbul, though the fees are a big drain on his income. “We no longer trust the school system,” he says. The feeling appears to be widely shared. The share of Turkish high-schoolers in private education has swelled from 7% in 2011 to 20% last year.

Turkish schools may indeed underperform, but in Mr Erdogan’s eyes only they can be trusted to raise genuine patriots. Students who are sent to the West for education, he said on September 25th, “return as the West’s volunteer spies”. He might care to recall, however, that all four of his children studied abroad.