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String of protests promised

Teachers have clashed with the police in Ankara in protests over new anti-union laws and heavy funding cutbacks. Jon Gorvett reports

TEACHERS faced tear gas and baton charges last week as protests swept Turkey over appalling school conditions and a new union law.

With eight teachers hospitalised - including two teachers' union leaders - educators vowed to continue their protests in the coming months.

The spark that has lit the powder keg is a new law designed to restrict teachers, and other public workers, from being able to organise in unions or other professional bodies.

This has come on top of swingeing cutbacks and what many teachers are calling the effective end of central educational funding.

"The authorities give our school about pound;70 a year," said high school teacher Hikmet Topruk from the Istanbul district of Kadikoy. "This is for facilities for about 1,000 children. Of course, there is no way we can cover costs without raising money elsewhere. In our school, we take about pound;3.50 a month off each kid for electricity, repairs, water, heating, about two dozen different things. Then the education ministry takes 25 per cent of this back. We're paying them rather than the other way round."

This practice goes even further outside the capital. Recently, in the central Anatolian town of Kayseri, pupils who could not pay extra charges at one school were put to work by the headteacher building a road to connect the school to the local highway.

When questioned by reporters, local head Ahmet Eroglu replied tat he thought it was "a good education".

The pressure on teachers has been worsened by the country's recent financial crisis. In February, the government was forced to abandon exchange-rate controls as markets crashed in the wake of a huge corruption scandal. The Turkish currency, the lira, devalued 40 per cent overnight, inflation rocketed and teachers' salaries were slashed.

Hasan Erzincan, an official from the teachers' union, Egitem Sen, said that teachers' average starting salary now amounts to no more than pound;167 a month, rising to pound;210 for more experienced educators. The government-stated minimum wage for a family of four is about pound;570 a month.

"Now the summer has come, but teachers are still turning up for school in heavy winter boots and coats, as they can't afford to buy new clothes," said Mr Erzincan.

As teachers are already forbidden from taking strike action, last week's action took the form of a mass "sick leave", with staff turning out for local protests around the country.

Around 3,000 protested in the capital, Ankara, where police fired tear gas and charged the crowd, arresting 14 and injuring eight.

However, Mr Erzincan vowed that, despite it being the end of the school year this week, teachers would continue to hold protests during the summer along with other public sector workers affected by the union law and collapsing living standards.

"We will continue our actions until we get all our rights," he said. "This time, teachers are determined to go through to the finish."

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