Turkish gov’t plans to place quarter of top students in Islamist schools

Nearly a quarter of top-performing students entering Turkish high schools are expected to be placed in religious imam-hatip schools, Turkish Education Minister İsmet Yılmaz said on Thursday, which secular critics say unfairly prioritizes Islamist education.

According to a report by Reuters, the top 10 percent of students in Turkey currently in their final year of middle school are set to win places in selected schools under a new entrance exam system in June, part of education reforms drafted on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s orders.

Erdoğan has said one of his goals is to forge a “pious generation” in largely Muslim Turkey, and the number of pupils at imam-hatip schools, founded to train future imams and preachers, has risen fivefold to 1.3 million students in the last six years.

According to the exam system guide posted on the Education Ministry website, nearly 300 of the 1,367 schools selected to receive students who pass the exam are imam-hatip schools.

Yılmaz told pro-government broadcaster CNN Turk in an interview that the religious school allocation was low compared to the 62 percent allotment for science and regular high schools. “Is everyone going to imam-hatips? That’s an exaggeration,” he said. “We envisage the level going to imam-hatips will be 23 percent. Twenty-three percent is not bigger than 62.”

“We are not forcing anyone to do anything,” he said, adding that parents did not have to send their children to particular schools.

While imam-hatip students make up 11 percent of the total high school population, they were allocated some 23 percent of funding in this year’s budget, a Reuters report showed in January.

“The government is trying to direct successful pupils towards imam-hatips by raising their profile, having been unable to achieve the desired success and increase demand for them,” main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Utku Çakırözer told Reuters.

More than one million students will complete middle school this year, and the 90 percent who are not placed through exams will indicate preferences for schools near their homes.

Under the previous system, all students took the upper school entrance exam, and Yılmaz said the new system was designed to limit the number of students facing the stress of exams.

The Egitim-Sen teachers’ union said in a statement that it was launching a court challenge to the new system. “The AKP continues to insist on a policy of making education religious,” it said, referring to Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

While there were 3,110 imam-hatip schools in Turkey at the beginning of the school year in 2015, the number has increased to 4,112 as 1,002 new imam-hatip schools were opened during the 2016-2017 educational year. The total number of students in these schools has also increased to 1,155,932.

In 2016, the average number of students per class in imam-hatip high schools was 16.8, and there were 12.3 students per teacher. However, in other high schools, such as schools with concentration on natural and social sciences and foreign language, there were an average of 26.3 students per classroom and 15 students per teacher.

A report released by the Journalists and Writers Foundation (JWF) in March 2017 on the fate and state of private educational institutions and educators affiliated with the Gülen movement in Turkey and abroad has also revealed that the most of the Gülen movement-affiliated secular private science schools in the country were transformed into religious imam-hatip schools as part of the top to down Islamization and radicalization policies followed by the Turkish government.

According to the report by JWF titled “Assault on Education in Turkey and Abroad” as secondary religious schools imam-hatips experienced a fourfold annual increase in terms of students attending these schools during the first nine years of AKP rule.

In addition to the general “imam-hatipization” of the Turkish educational system, most of the closed private schools and dormitories, which were affiliated with the Gülen movement, were also converted into imam-hatip schools in the aftermath of a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

However, according to the JWF report, despite the extensive support by the government, imam-hatip schools’ overall performance has remained extremely poor. In one test of 40 math question in 2015, students at imam-hatip schools averaged only 2.18 correct answers. In comparison, students of the FEN Lisesi averaged 28.42 correct answers on the same test. The wider significance of imam-hatip schools has been a constant source of contention, with many viewing them as “problem-ridden institutions” that are breeding grounds for radicals.

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