Turkey's Education Policy during the AK Party Era (2002-2013)

Article excerpt

As a number of international observers have noted, the "education system in Turkey has shown remarkable improvement since 2003 in terms of better students' performance and reduced inequality with a concurrent and sustained increase in enrollments". (1) Indeed, Turkey has achieved an unprecedented success in expanding educational opportunities and access from preschool to higher education by building new educational institutions and renovating existing ones. The recent improvements in Turkey's educational system are a direct result of the Justice and Development Party's (the AK Party) educational policies and reforms. Indeed, the AK Party has been one of the most reformist governments of Turkey to date and has paid particular attention to improving the country's educational system. As of 2002, successive AK Party governments implemented many educational reforms with a number of goals in mind, among them to increase access to education, to improve the quality of education, to democratize the education system that had been unable to meet social demands. Notwithstanding these improvements, some challenges remain. For instance, Turkey still lags one full year behind the OECD average according to the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009.2

This article focuses on the educational policies of the AK Party governments during the last decade. The AK Party's education reforms and policies will be examined through the lenses of access, quality, governance, finance, and democratization of education. The current problems and challenges of Turkey's education system will also be discussed. In order to analyze national educational policies, strategies, and plans and their implementation during the AK Party era, this article utilizes document analysis as a research method. Major documents sources used in this analysis include official agenda of governments; development plans; official reports, statistics, and documents; nongovernmental documents including reports prepared by national and international organizations; as well as international studies such as PISA and TIMMS, conducted by OECD and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) respectively.

Enhancing Access to Education

Up until the early 2000s, students' enrollment levels and duration remained considerably low. For instance, the average Turkey's student received six years of schooling, only half of the average among EU and OECD students, when the AK Party came to power in the country. (3) In 2002, only 5 percent of children attended pre-school compared to 90 percent in elementary schools, 50 percent in secondary education and 15 percent in higher education. (See Table 1) Acknowledging that the lack of adequate schooling represented an obstacle for Turkey's economic growth, successive AK Party governments sought to improve enrollment rates and the average years of schooling at all levels from pre-school to higher education. Below, we discuss developments with respect to access to education.

Pre-School

Children's enrollment rate in pre-school institutions remained quite low in the early 2000s. In 2000, only 5.38 percent of children between 36 and 72 months of age were enrolled in educational institutions. (See Table 1) Various public debates and official reports during this period raised the question of promoting pre-school education and enhancing access to pre-school education. (4) Similarly, national education programmes and initiatives highlighted the importance of pre-school education and pledged to take concrete steps to promote pre-school education. For example, the government aimed to increase pre-school enrollment to 50 percent in its 9th Development Plan and the Official Agenda of the 60th Government. (5) Similarly, the Strategic Plan of the Ministry of National Education aimed at raising the pre-school enrollment rate to 70 percent by 2014.6 The vocal support for pre-school education evolved into government policy as of 2009. …