Secularism must be sacrosanct in education

With Scottish education keeping us busy, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, and the sorts of challenges faced by those trying to give children the best possible start in life elsewhere.

It also makes it easy to forget that there is more than one way of viewing the world, and more than one way in which an education system can develop in the 21st century. For me, walking the streets of Istanbul last week was a reminder of that.

Most people in Scotland, and the UK more generally, believe that schools are meant to be places where horizons are broadened, ideas introduced, and barriers and prejudices towards other cultures, backgrounds and religions broken down.

In Turkey, however, the approach to the place of religion in schools is increasingly very different, with the government taking step after step to cement the role of Islam in education.

Recent milestones have included the abolition of the decades-old headscarf ban. And last month, the age at which girls were allowed to wear headscarves in school was lowered to 10.

The reason for such changes, the government says, is to give children the freedom to express their religion and their beliefs. Far be it from me to question anyone's intentions, or their religious convictions, but is it really the faith of 10-year-old girls that is being protected here?

Many Turks view these reforms in a less favourable light. They believe that the changes are a way of ensuring that conservative Muslim families are able to maintain a hold on their children, even when they are in school.

Say we assume that the intention behind wearing a headscarf is to prevent women from being sexually attractive to men they are not married to. If this is the case, then personally I cannot help but question how this purpose could possibly relate to a 10-year-old girl.

And the government's policies look set to go beyond the realm of the headscarf, with other uniform rules apparently in the pipeline.

Earlier this week, at a symposium on tackling drug abuse, president Tayyip Erdogan reportedly brushed aside calls to end compulsory religious education, saying children who did not study it would fill this gap with drugs, violence or organised crime, which could even lead to involvement in terrorism.

Like many with a true love for Turkey and its people, I worry deeply about the direction that is being taken in the nation's schools.

But I also think that for those in Scottish education, the developments in Turkey can serve as a stern reminder of what education is for, and what preserving the rights of children means.

Education should provide us with the information we need to establish our own views and beliefs. And just as importantly, it should give us the strength and confidence to protect our views from those who attempt to undermine them.

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