Change in schools could play a pivotal role in Turkey's bid for European Union membership. Yojana Sharma reports
Turkey's education system is being revamped to conform to European values and consign militaristic traditions to the past.
So said education minister Huseyin Celik as his country awaited a decision this weekend on whether talks on joining the European Union can begin.
On a visit to London, Dr Celik, a member of the ruling Justice and Development party, told The TES that the curriculum is being overhauled to make Turkish schooling more child-centred.
"What we are doing is moving from a memory-based system to one where the individual is at the centre. This will serve democracy in our country and it is also better for productivity," said Dr Celik, whose party mixes pro-Western policies with Islamic roots. "The fundamental aim is not to train obedient servants but to develop a sceptical mind."
Pupils in 200 primary and 100 secondary schools are being "taught" democracy in a pilot scheme launched this year. The children are involved in school councils and made aware of their rights.
Civic groups are cautiously optimistic about the much-needed reform, announced in August. They believe the changes, if implemented fully, will enable pupils to challenge long-held views and question the past in ways not possible under the present autocratic system.
The new Turkish, maths, science and "life skills" curricula are being piloted in 120 schools across nine provinces, partly funded by the European Commission. About 2,300 teachers have been re-trained, according to the education department.
Hakan Ataman, of Human Rights Watch in Turkey, said: "Our main concern is that the mentality of teachers may not change and that they will retain their nationalistic and ideological prejudices."
Such prejudices are still reflected in most school textbooks (see right). But Dr Celik said textbooks were being rewritten to conform to European standards and norms and "anything that is found offensive by our neighbours and countries that we deal with geographically and historically will be done away with".
Critics say textbooks written only last year portray minorities such as Kurds and Armenians as untrustworthy as well as traitors, in breach of Europe's non discrimination directives.
Dr Celik said "European values" would be at the heart of curriculum reform. But huge disparities still exist between the schooling of girls and boys, with an estimated 140,000 girls illiterate.
A joint programme with Unicef to educate girls in 10 mostly rural provinces and the south-east was expanded this year into 23 other areas, including the capital Ankara and other urban areas. "Education for girls is a basic human right," Dr Celik said.
But he stressed that European values did not mean "saying goodbye to your own culture and religion". Under the reforms, religious classes, compulsory under the constitution, would be for "learning about religion, not learning religion", and would include comparative religion. Such classes would also be open to those who are not Muslims - 1 per cent of the population.
Civic groups say the present government has done more to reform education than the previous administration.
In 2002 education overtook the defence budget for the first time ever, and is now the largest government sector. "I am hoping it remains that way," Dr Celik said.